Is America safer? Yes, in some ways

The Columbus Dispatch – September 7, 2003

WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly two years since smoke billowed from the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and Americans watched in horror as bodies plunged through the air and ash-covered New Yorkers staggered through darkened streets.

Since then, the war on terrorism has seen U.S. military might unleashed in Afghanistan and Iraq even as Osama bin Laden has proved elusive and his al-Qaida network has shown with attacks worldwide that it remains dangerous.

Meanwhile, the government’s color-coded terrorism warning system has never fallen below ”elevated.” It’s been ominously raised to ”high” alert at times such as the anxiety-ridden first anniversary of 9/11, even as alleged would-be terrorists and al-Qaida cells have been rounded up nationwide.

But aside from the still-mysterious anthrax attack shortly after 9/11 — which hasn’t been definitively linked to anyone — no further terrorist assaults have struck the United States.

Are Americans safer? Or is it just a matter of time before al-Qaida chooses to strike again on American soil?

The answer to the first question, many experts say, is yes: Americans are safer today in their own country than on Sept. 11, 2001.

But this in no way guarantees another attack won’t occur tomorrow, they quickly add.

”I think we’ve made some significant progress, but it’s no time to let down our vigilance,” said Peter Brookes, a former CIA operations officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense who is now a senior fellow for national-security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. ”We know they still want do us and others harm. The empirical evidence is positive — there have been no new attacks (inside the U.S.) — but we know they continue to try to do it. 9/11 took 11 or 12 years to plan. They will use any means.”

That willingness to shift tactics, perhaps from hijacking planes to bombing vulnerable public places or hiding weapons inside innocent-looking objects such as stuffed animals, is what scares private security consultants such as Hank Chase, a retired Navy commander who was charged with protecting Navy and Marine bases worldwide from terrorism.

On the one hand, Americans are safer at home because terrorists and their training bases have been rooted out worldwide and greater emphasis is now given to policing and protecting infrastructure at home, said Chase, director of homeland security for ITS Corp. But at the same time, the country remains vulnerable to attacks in a myriad of places, from restaurants to stadiums to its transportation and power systems, he added.

After all, ”virtually every hotel in America” is similar to the Marriott in Jakarta, Indonesia, where an Aug. 5 suicide bombing thought to be linked to al-Qaida killed 12 people.

”If you don’t work in a federal building or on a government military base, you are as vulnerable as before” 9/11, Chase said. ”That scares the dickens out of guys like me who deal in fixing vulnerabilities.”

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the nation’s terror threat level was being maintained at ”yellow” (elevated). Still, a real threat remains from al-Qaida, the department’s advisory to federal, state and local security personnel warned.

”Based on a recent interagency review of available information leading up to the Sept. 11 anniversary, we remain concerned about Al-Qaida’s continued efforts to plan multiple attacks against the U.S. and U.S. interests overseas,” the advisory stated. ”However, at this time, we have no specific information on individual targets or dates for any attack.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said last week that many steps have been taken to safeguard vulnerable points. He cited better intelligence gathering and coordination methods; new stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics in the event of bioterrorism; and stepped-up and more sophisticated border and aviation security.

Prominent among the initiatives was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the federalizing of thousands of airport screeners and other security personnel. Ridge last week announced plans for 5,000 more air marshals in the wake of criticism of the TSA for supposedly being poised to cut back on the number of marshals.

When it comes to tracking the terrorists, more than 3,000 al-Qaida leaders and ”foot soldiers” have been captured worldwide and nearly 200 ”suspected terrorist associates” have been charged with crimes, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Included in those rounded up in America is former Columbus truck driver Iyman Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Kashmir, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to giving material support to al-Qaida and awaits sentencing.

Still, there are no guarantees when it comes to protecting against terrorists willing to walk a ”senseless path of murder, destruction and chaos,” Ridge said in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute here last week.

”We can never guarantee that we are free from the possibility of terrorist attacks, but we can say this: We are more secure and better prepared than we were two years ago,” Ridge said. ”Each and every day, we rise to a new level of readiness and response . . . now the highest level of protection this nation has ever known.”

Recent national polls show that the fear of another terrorist attack has slid from the list of front-burner issues for much of the public.

In a Saperstein Associates poll of the Columbus area last week for The Dispatch, the economy was a leading concern for almost five times as many respondents as was the possibility of more attacks.

And while 56 percent expressed worry about another terrorist strike on U.S. soil, that figure is down from 69 percent in a statewide Buckeye State Poll a year ago. Only about a third in last week’s survey said they feared an attack on themselves or their families, almost exactly the same percentage as on the first anniversary of the terrorist strikes.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lisbon, said it’s important for Americans not to become complacent just because two years have passed without further domestic incident. He noted that Saddam Hussein apparently still lurks free somewhere in Iraq. Meanwhile, some people sarcastically refer to bin Laden as ”Osama been forgotten,” he added.

”That’s an appropriate way to bring attention to the fact that this is the man who is responsible for Sept. 11, 2001. He is still on the loose. There is no doubt that what he is out there somewhere plotting the next major attack on this country,” Strickland said. ”So I think we ought not to be lulled into a false sense of security or complacency, because I think ultimately we may find that the greatest failure over the last two years has been the failure to find and apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden.”