WASHINGTON—In the five years since terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans have accepted inconvenience, sacrificed personal liberties and paid billions of dollars for a security clampdown that touches virtually every aspect of their lives.
And we're still not safe.
A close examination of the federal government's homeland security effort shows that there have been major accomplishments since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But it also reveals how vulnerable the nation remains to catastrophe.
Federal officials and security experts directly involved in the cat-and-mouse game with terrorists have realized that the nation faces more threats than the government can ever combat. The result is a deadly guessing game on a global scale, with security officials often one step behind the terrorists.
"We can't cover every conceivable target against every conceivable attack at every waking moment," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor in security studies. "You strengthen one set of targets, they'll shift to another."
Protect against box cutters, and the terrorists try shoe bombs. Protect against shoe bombs, and the terrorists try liquid explosives. Protect airliners, and the terrorists blow up buses and trains. The list of possibilities is endless, but the government's resources aren't.
The nation has spent more than $280 billion on the domestic side of the war on terrorism over the past five years to hire thousands more FBI and Border Patrol agents and buy high-tech devices to secure the nation's planes, trains, ports, nuclear reactors and other potential targets. U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $400-plus billion more.
It's a commitment that far exceeds the post-World War II Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe, but it's not nearly enough to close off every possible line of attack. Some experts say part of the money has been wasted on efforts to combat nonexistent or highly unlikely threats, while other, more pressing risks, were ignored.
In the frenzied attempt to patch holes in the nation's defenses, government agencies seemed to buy a device for everything: from computerized fingerprinting systems to trace explosives detectors to full body scanners to sensors that pick up deadly germs and radiation. Some of it works as advertised; some of it doesn't.
"The problem with much of this technology is that it's valuable only if you guess the plot," said Bruce Schneier, author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World." "We could sit here and come up with millions of identifiable risks. If we had infinite money we could address everything. But we have finite money and we should pick and choose carefully."
Independent security experts say the government should sharpen its priorities and adopt a long-term strategy that reflects a deeper understanding of the enemy.
Federal officials take pride in the fact that the United States has avoided a major terrorist attack since Sept. 11, but they're under no illusions that it couldn't happen again.
"I don't think there's any agency that exists that's going to be able to stop every single plan every single time," Assistant FBI Director John Miller said.
Americans are safer than they were five years ago. But any accounting of the government's performance shows missteps and gaps along with the successes.
Some counterterrorism experts think it's only a matter of time before terrorists unleash weapons of mass destruction on an American city.
With so much radioactive material available worldwide, some of it is bound to fall into terrorists' hands, said retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, the former commander of U.S. nuclear forces and the former head of nuclear security at the Energy Department.
Gaps in port security could allow terrorists to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country. Or they could assemble a "dirty bomb" by using a conventional explosive to spew radioactive material.
The government has done little to prepare for the possibility of a radioactive event.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has spent billions of dollars stockpiling medicines to treat anthrax, smallpox and nerve-gas victims, it's failed to buy experimental drugs that could help hundreds of thousands of potential victims of acute radiation exposure.
The Homeland Security Department is working on a contract for anti-radiation drugs, but only for enough medicine to treat 100,000 people.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge harbors deeper worries: that terrorists will genetically engineer a germ "that is communicable for which we have no antidote and nothing to diagnose."
Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Sept. 11 commission, agreed that "several highly talented scientists with reasonable access to sophisticated (laboratory) equipment could bring down a city or a large swath of America."
Some experts advocate funding state-of-the-art laboratories that could seek antidotes to new germs within days of their appearance. For now, though, most of the government's efforts are focused on known threats.
Detectors scattered around New York, Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis and dozens of other cities sample the air for anthrax, smallpox and other deadly germs invisible to the naked eye. Biological and radiation detectors are also deployed during the Super Bowl and other major public events.
The Homeland Security Department is spending at least $1.1 billion on a new generation of radiation detectors that are scheduled to be in the nation's ports by year's end. Secretary Michael Chertoff said they would be used to inspect nearly 90 percent of the cargo entering the country by sea.
Terrorists, however, have other ways to wreak havoc, including using low-tech methods to defeat high-tech detectors. Rather than trying to smuggle germs past sniffers, for example, terrorists could smuggle infected people into crowded arenas or mass transit systems as a new form of suicide bombers.
Working with state officials, Homeland Security has developed a list of 77,000 potential terrorist targets, including 1,100 nuclear-power facilities, chemical plants, national monuments and other vulnerable sites.
But a recent internal audit said the agency had failed to conduct risk assessments on many of the 77,000 sites. The result is a security patchwork. Some sites are far more secure than they were five years ago; others remain open to attack.
CLOSING SECURITY GAPS
Gun-toting National Guard troops no longer patrol the nation's airports, but other changes have greatly reduced the risk of a replay of the Sept. 11 attacks. Still, the alleged London bomb plot, which called for using liquid explosives to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners, suggests that Islamic terrorists remain determined to seize or destroy commercial planes.
"They will adapt to try to get around whatever systems we have in place," said Kip Hawley, the head of the Transportation Security Administration.
While Hawley said airline security is "geometrically better than it was five years ago," progress has come in fits and starts—and at a big price.
Annual spending on air safety has nearly quadrupled since 2001, to about $6 billion, in part because the government now deploys a 43,000-member federal force to screen passengers.
But critics say the aviation-security system tends to fixate on the last terrorist plot while overlooking other potential terrorist tactics.
"We're still struggling to keep up with the terrorists," Georgetown's Hoffman said. "It's not just the spending of the money. It's how it's spent and the effect, and how good we are in anticipating and blocking terrorist threats."
U.S. officials have known for years that terrorists could mix easy-to-obtain liquids into an explosive cocktail on an aircraft. Hamilton called the U.S. government's lack of urgency to do anything about it until British authorities uncovered the London plot "extremely disturbing."
On the other hand, some measures adopted in haste were soon rendered inadequate by technological advances. Luggage-screening systems that were installed at major airports across the country after Sept. 11 are already being replaced by new, more efficient equipment.
Some security experts say the government isn't doing enough to guard against the possible use of shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles against passenger jets.
At least two dozen terrorist groups are known to possess shoulder-fired missiles, and a government report this summer concluded that it would take at least 20 years to develop and install laser-based electronic countermeasures on passenger aircraft.
"Obviously, there've been improvements in security," Hoffman said. "But the question is, are they enough?"
Efforts to improve border security have been equally challenging, partly because 1.2 million people enter and leave the country each day. The government hired 2,263 more Border Patrol agents, nearly tripled the number of agents on the northern border and deployed video surveillance cameras and other electronic equipment to monitor remote areas. The equipment has limitations, however, and illegal immigrants can still find their way around agents.
Investigators from the Government Accountability Office were able to cross both the northern and southern borders repeatedly with fake documents and radioactive materials. At one border checkpoint, the investigators posed as employees of a fictitious company and entered the United States with enough radioactive material in the trunks of their vehicles to make two dirty bombs.
"If you want to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country, just wrap it in a bale of marijuana," Frank Cilluffo, former special assistant to President Bush on domestic security matters, said half-jokingly. "The truth is, we still have a very porous border."
Federal officials say they have to be careful not to impose measures that might not be effective—or even worse could hurt the economies of border states.
"There are a lot of zealots out there who want us to go ahead and basically close our borders to ensure 100 percent security," said Jayson Ahern, who oversees the nation's 322 ports for Customs and Border Patrol. "We have to make sure as we implement security measures that we're not stifling legitimate travel and trade."
Other security gaps increase the risk that terrorists could slip into the country legally, then overstay their visas.
The Homeland Security Department spent more than $900 million on a database tracking system that electronically records the arrival of about 1.5 million airline passengers and other foreign guests each month.
At least 1,300 criminals and one suspected terrorist have been denied entry. But only a small fraction of foreign visitors have to check out through the system when they leave the country, so the government doesn't know how many have illegally overstayed their visas.
CATCHING AND PROSECUTING TERRORIST SUSPECTS
The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies have made pursuing terrorists their top priority since Sept. 11, and they've had some notable successes as well as some embarrassing mistakes.
Federal officials say they've disrupted at least 10 terrorist plots since Sept. 11 and played a role in the recent arrests in London.
"We know a lot about a lot of people here in the United States and overseas," said John Pistole, the FBI's No. 2 official. "Our concern, of course, is in those gaps in intelligence."
More than 260 defendants have been convicted of terrorism-related charges in the United States, and trials are pending for 150 more.
Charges have been dismissed against eight defendants, and four defendants were deported after charges were dropped, according to Justice Department estimates released in June. The Justice Department didn't report how many defendants were acquitted.
But critics contend that the domestic law enforcement agencies' record is marred by inflated claims, mistaken arrests and botched prosecutions.
"What they've been able to find is people who are loosely talking about doing damage to the United States and, self-evidently, neither have the resources nor the intelligence nor the money to carry these plots out," said Michael Greenberger, a former Clinton administration counterterrorism official.
Others say prosecutors have risked losing out on key evidence by swooping in too early and have snared too many innocent people.
In Detroit, the government dropped charges against members of an alleged "sleeper cell" after discovering that a prosecutor failed to reveal evidence that might have proved their innocence.
In Oregon, FBI agents held lawyer Brandon Mayfield for almost three weeks in 2004, then admitted that a faulty fingerprint analysis had fed their mistaken suspicions that he was linked to the Madrid train bombings.
In Idaho, a federal jury acquitted computer science graduate student Sami Omar Al-Hussayen of charges that he aided terrorists by helping design a Web site for an Islamic nonprofit organization.
When terrorism-related charges couldn't be supported, prosecutors aggressively pursued other criminal charges against suspects, such as for immigration and identity theft violations.
Pistole said the FBI now uses "whatever lawful tools we have" to disrupt a suspected terror plot—whether the charges appear minor or not. "As long as we have disrupted whatever the plot may be."
The Treasury Department, for instance, says it has blocked more than 1,600 terrorist-related bank accounts and transactions, and prevented more than 40 charities with alleged al-Qaida ties to gain access to America's financial system.
Gathering good intelligence from close-knit terrorist cells remains a major challenge, but government officials say the CIA is doing a much better job of penetrating terrorist operations overseas.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, said she's been "incredibly impressed with both the quality and depth" of the CIA's human intelligence, especially in the last year.
The FBI has more than doubled both its number of intelligence analysts, to 2,161, and the number of special agents devoted to counterterrorism and intelligence gathering, to 4,634.
The bureau also has improved its computer capability, despite a major setback when technical problems led to the scuttling of a new $170 million virtual case file system, said Pistole. The bureau has compiled more than 650 million records into a database known as the Investigative Data Warehouse, which cross-indexes information with the databases of a dozen or more federal agencies.
"There would be a much greater probability that somebody would say, `Wait a minute—some Middle Eastern males wanting to take flight lessons? That fits into this other side of the equation,"" Pistole said. "That's simply something that we didn't have prior to 9-11."
But while the government has killed or captured many top al-Qaida terrorists overseas, experts say intelligence agencies still fail to provide enough information to law enforcement officials.
"There's still this arrogance that exists within all intelligence agencies that it's going to come from the top down," Cilluffo said. "On the flip side, state and local officials still have this inaccurate perception that there's someone behind a locked door with all the information."
The administration has struggled to balance its efforts to improve intelligence with adhering to the Constitution.
The government has appealed an Aug. 17 federal court ruling that struck down an eavesdropping program that targets communications between suspected terrorists overseas and their associates in this country without using warrants. Federal officials say the program has helped disrupt terrorist plots, but they haven't provided any details to support the claim.
Other programs have been scuttled because of civil liberties concerns. Facing complaints from both liberals and conservatives, the government abandoned Operation TIPS, a program that asked citizens to report suspicious activity.
It also scrapped the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness project, which aimed to compile a massive database of public and private records. Yet components of the Total Information Awareness project live on, according to former senior U.S. government officials. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said some of the program's research was quietly transferred to a unit of the eavesdropping National Security Agency under a program code-named "Basketball."
Attempts to cultivate sources within the Muslim community have been hampered by lingering ill will from heavy-handed tactics in the months after Sept. 11, including voluntary interviews that came off as interrogations, critics said. The FBI also continues to face problems in hiring translators and experts who might make inroads into the Muslim-American community.
"To run an effective counterintelligence organization you have to have intimate knowledge of the people you're trying to penetrate," said Christopher Hamilton, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst who worked on the Sept. 11 investigation.
STRATEGIES FOR THE FUTURE
Experts agree much more needs to be done, but they don't all agree on the priorities and solutions.
"If you look at the first year after the terror attacks, more was accomplished in that one year to stand up programs that made us safer than probably any other year in the history of government," said Dennis Murphy, a former senior homeland security official. "There was the political will to do it."
That bipartisan will has dissipated amid election-year politics, legal setbacks and a torrent of criticism over delays and lapses in nearly every homeland security program. Ridge blamed some of the problems on Congress, which he said sent the Homeland Security Department mixed messages.
"If you keep changing the priorities ... I think that's pretty difficult for anybody," Ridge said.
Hamilton, the former Sept. 11 commission chairman and a former head of the House Intelligence Committee, said the government should set priorities rather than try to guard against every conceivable threat. The recent flap over proposed security-funding reductions for some cities, including New York and Washington, shows how difficult those choices can be.
Security experts agree that, while the nation must bolster security against catastrophic attacks, protecting the homeland should be the last line of defense. The only real solution is to find a way to blunt the appeal of Islamic extremism.
Brian Jenkins, a RAND Corp. counterterrorism expert and the author of "Unconquerable Nation," a new book about the terrorist threat, said the United States needs to become more effective at political warfare "aimed at blunting messages, impeding recruiting and stopping the flow of angry young men into the jihadist circle."
"Unless we can do that," he said, "then we are condemned to a strategy that is equivalent to stepping on cockroaches one at a time."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060830 SEPT11 WTC, 20060830 SEPT11 cost, 20060830 SEPT11 terror
Need to map