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How safe now?

In March, a TIME investigation found that U.S. agencies were running into obstacles as they struggled to shore up our homeland defenses. An update: the system is still broken, and much is left undone

How safe now?

By Romesh Ratnesar
Reported by Melissa August, Sally Donnelly, Andrew Goldstein, Mark Thompson and Adam Zagorin/Washington


The U.S.-led military campaign has devastated al-Qaeda's training infrastructure, destroyed its sanctuary and scattered its forces. But thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters survived the war, and some are regrouping at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The latest fighting is taking place on the border in Paktia province, where some 1,000 allied troops are hunting down about 100 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. "That is where most of these guys have gone to ground," a Central Command officer says.

But no one knows whether the most prized targets--Osama bin Laden; his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and Taliban leader Mullah Omar--are among them. Last week a London-based Arab newspaper carried a purported interview with Omar in which he claimed that bin Laden is alive, warned that "we don't consider the battle has ended" and vowed to bring "fire and hell and total defeat" on the U.S.


Bin Laden's ability to plan more attacks has been degraded, but the danger he poses will mount the longer he stays at large. Intelligence officials say they continue to pick up "chatter" from al-Qaeda operatives vowing to strike another huge blow. Last Friday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he hasn't seen "good, hard information" on the fate of bin Laden and Omar since December. "We continue to see scraps," he said. "But none of it seems to prove out."


After Sept. 11, the Bush Administration tried to bolster the federal counterterror effort by creating the Office of Homeland Security under Tom Ridge. The office is responsible for plugging holes in the bureaucracy and coordinating some 70 federal agencies and thousands of local government organizations--but Ridge wields little clout over any of them. Bush gave him no authority over Cabinet departments; as a result, many of Ridge's proposals have stalled. Now the Administration is studying ways to give Ridge's office the power he needs to get the job done. The redesign will be unveiled in July.

The CIA and the FBI, taking blame for failing to share information with each other and Administration officials about the hijacking threat, are trying to make up for their mistakes. The staff of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, where FBI and CIA agents work side by side, has doubled to 1,000 since Sept. 11. Analysts from both agencies have worked closely to investigate al-Qaeda materials recovered by the military in Afghanistan for clues to possible terror plots. Bush now receives reports from both agencies in a single daily briefing. But the intelligence community is still struggling to get up to speed. Last week FBI Director Robert Mueller announced plans to create a "supersquad" of Washington-based agents to handle terrorism investigations. It will require the bureau to hire almost 2,000 new agents in the next 18 months.


Random screenings and camouflaged soldiers in airports have not made flying more secure. Sensible proposals long sought by aviation experts--such as requiring carriers to match all bags to passengers on connecting flights--have not been adopted. The congressional mandate to install 2,200 explosive-detection devices in all 429 airports by the end of the year has been scaled down; the new Transportation Security Administration does plan to buy almost 5,000 trace-detection devices. The TSA is having trouble recruiting more than 40,000 new screeners. So far, government-trained screeners have taken up positions in exactly one airport.

Some experts say the U.S.'s haphazard security procedures may only invite terrorists to try their luck. Because airports, carriers and the government haven't yet implemented a methodical system for identifying potential terrorists, everyone from pilots to grandmothers is subject to random screening. In the long run, that can work in the enemy's favor. "The U.S. has the bad guys celebrating this inefficient use of resources," says Lior Zoucker, who heads an aviation-security firm. "Terrorists like a system that treats everyone the same."


The greatest challenge in fighting terrorism is not to prevent terrorists from repeating their last attack but to anticipate where and how they will strike next. U.S. officials have picked up intelligence about threats to targets ranging from the electric-power grid to the water supply. Last week two Muslim men not connected to al-Qaeda were indicted in South Florida for conspiring to blow up two electric-power stations. The Administration dismissed as unreliable a tip that terrorists may be planning to hit a U.S. nuclear plant on July 4. But that was a reminder of the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear facilities. Staged terrorist attacks on commercial power plants succeed about half the time. After 9/11, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered a review of security at the U.S.'s 103 nuclear plants. But the agency has yet to close glaring security holes. On Nov. 7 the government lifted a temporary ban on the use of airspace over nuclear plants, and officials say they don't plan to equip them with antiaircraft weapons, as the French do. Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, says, "The agencies responsible...have not increased the security requirements to adequately match the threat we all know exists."


The first lines of defense against terrorism are the country's borders and shores. But the U.S.'s perimeter is long and porous. The government still lacks a system for determining whether immigrants who enter legally overstay their visas, as two 9/11 hijackers did. The Immigration and Naturalization Service's new budget request includes money to hire 570 more border-patrol agents by next year, but experts think the U.S. needs to add at least twice that number. The border-security act that Bush signed last week aims to modernize the country's system of tracking those who want to enter the country. The ins has more than a dozen computer programs for processing visas and green-card applications; it should have just one.

Security experts warn that terrorist groups could use container ships to sneak explosives, weapons of mass destruction and even operatives into the U.S. Since 9/11, Coast Guard officers have boarded 10,000 vessels; in the nine months before 9/11, they boarded just 200. But the U.S. still inspects only 2% of incoming seaborne cargo.


Last fall's anthrax attacks sent public-health officials racing to upgrade the U.S.'s bioterrorism defenses. Federal spending on programs to combat bioterrorism has increased 10-fold, to $2.9 billion, and is scheduled to rise to $4 billion next year. How much security does that buy? According to Health and Human Services official Jerome Hauer, the number of emergency-supply caches ready to be deployed to U.S. cities in the event of an attack has increased from eight to 12; by the end of the year, the government expects to have enough doses of the smallpox vaccine to supply every American in the event of an outbreak; and the U.S. is producing new supplies of the anthrax vaccine.

But the U.S. is far from safe. Because many deadly agents can spread quickly and cut a wide swath of destruction, the responsibility for coping with the consequences of a possible attack will rest with the country's nearly 7,000 local health departments, which still must train hospitals and physicians in how to spot and treat the symptoms of bioterrorism. "We haven't really gotten stuff done yet," says Tara O'Toole, a biodefense expert at Johns Hopkins University. Government researchers are also playing catch-up: a recent Defense Department analysis found that the U.S. has countermeasures against only a third of the most likely bioterror pathogens. And like Osama bin Laden, those responsible for the anthrax terror remain at large.




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