America still vulnerable

December 07, 2004|By Graham Allison

THE IMPENDING departure of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raises the question of how well we have protected ourselves against terrorist attacks.

It is certainly harder to walk onto a plane with a box cutter or break into a cockpit, and that's progress. But terrorists are exploring other vulnerabilities, and unfortunately, there are still many. Here are five glaring gaps that we should address as quickly as possible to prevent the next 9/11:

Government information sharing. When the 9/11 hijackers walked up to the counter to check in for their flights, three of them were already in CIA databases as suspected terrorists. Had the Federal Aviation Administration gotten that information and shared it with the airlines, things might have turned out differently that morning. (Similarly, earlier that summer, Mohamed Atta was pulled over for a routine traffic stop, but the officer who stopped him had no way of knowing there was a warrant out for his arrest one county over, and let him go.)

Despite new laws that make the Department of Homeland Security responsible for making sure all government agents know who to look out for, according to a recent report from the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, "less than 20 percent of the government's records on suspected terrorists have been integrated." Technically, this is a quick, easy fix, but bureaucracy has impeded it for three years and counting.

Air cargo. If you've flown on an airline recently, you've probably had your ticket checked thrice (as if any self-respecting terrorist would forget to match the name on his ticket to his driver's license) and removed your shoes and maybe some of your outer garments. All the while, unknown to you, the plane was most likely carrying unscreened commercial freight in the cargo hold. Only a tiny fraction of air cargo is screened to make sure it does not contain a bomb like the one that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. Screening cargo is not hard to do. Israel screens cargo going on its passenger planes, and we should as well.

First responders. On 9/11, many firefighters did not get out of the South Tower in time because they could not hear the police radio report that the building was about to fall. It is not only New York's first responders that cannot communicate by radio in an emergency.

According to a recent Council for Excellence poll of first responders, only one-quarter say their agencies are prepared to handle large-scale emergencies. A Council on Foreign Relations report called for $98 billion over five years for first responders, and the radio issue could be fixed for less than $500 million. Yet neither the Bush administration nor Congress designated any funds to upgrade local first-responder communications in the 2004 budget.

Chemical plants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 123 chemical plants across the country where a terrorist attack might kill a million or more neighbors and an additional 2,900 facilities where such an attack could threaten between 10,000 and 1 million people.

In other words, there are 3,000 U.S. chemical plants where a bad day would dwarf the casualties of 9/11. Yet the industry remains completely self-regulated with regard to terrorism. As a former Georgia-Pacific security chief said, "Security at a 7-Eleven after midnight is better than that at a plant with a 90-ton tank of chlorine." It will be hard to do this right, but it would be easy to make substantial improvements.

Loose nuclear weapons. In the presidential campaign, both candidates called the specter of a nuclear 9/11 our No. 1 security threat. A terrorist's only chance of getting a nuclear weapon is buying, stealing or smuggling what he needs from a state with nuclear materials.

Yet despite heightened attention to the threat, fewer potential nuclear bombs around the globe were secured in the two years after 9/11 than in the two years before that assault. The United States and Russia, with the greatest stockpiles of weapons, have yet to apply the same "Fort Knox" standard to guarding their arsenals that they do to their gold. Presidents Bush and Vladimir V. Putin should pledge that they will do everything technically feasible to secure all nuclear weapons and materials to that standard on the fastest possible timetable.

Three years after 9/11 and two years after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, we remain highly vulnerable to preventable attacks - in some cases, easily preventable attacks. The new secretary of DHS would do well to address our most glaring vulnerabilities before the terrorists do.

Graham Allison, director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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