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Key questions on terror and national preparedness

Conflicting priorities, implementation problems delaying reform

CNN security analyst Richard Falkenrath


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  • U.S. leaders did not understand the "gravity of the threat."
  • The United States wasn't prepared to meet al Qaeda's challenges.
  • Terrorism wasn't the chief security concern of the Bush or Clinton administrations.
  • Failures to thwart 9/11 highlight agencies' inability to adapt to new problems.
  • CIA effectiveness was limited by use of intermediaries to pursue Osama bin Laden.
  • Information and analysis wasn't shared across agencies.

  • Establish a Cabinet-level intelligence director.
  • Establish a single counterterrorism center.
  • Create a single, joint congressional committee to oversee homeland security.

    Acts of terror

    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The former 9/11 commission issued a report Monday that faulted the government's progress in implementing reforms the panel recommended last year.

    Some of the panel's suggested reforms have been put into place, notably the creation of the post of director of national intelligence. But others have not, the panel's report said.

    To help better understand the terror threat facing America, Richard Falkenrath, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a CNN security analyst, answers five key questions about the risk and how the government has responded since September 11, 2001.

    1. The former 9/11 commission said the U.S. is ill prepared for another terrorist attack. What is the No. 1 terrorist threat facing the nation?

    In my view, threats are evaluated according to likelihood and consequence. The most likely terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland is probably the simultaneous detonation of a handful of bombs hidden in backpacks in one of our mass transit systems.

    The most consequential, or damaging, attack would be a detonation of an improvised nuclear weapon in a U.S. city, a large-scale aerosol release of a lethal biological agent, or a successful attack on a large toxic industrial chemical target downwind of a population center.

    Experts and intelligence analysts constantly debate how to combine their assessments of likelihood with their assessments of consequence. Threat assessment is, after all, more of an art than a science.

    2. What is the top thing the commission said the U.S. is not doing to prepare against an attack, and why is that important?

    The final report of the 9/11 commission, which was released in July 2004, did not prioritize its recommendations, but its most important recommendation was undoubtedly to reorganize the U.S. intelligence community. This was done in the Intelligence Reform and Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2004.

    In their report released today, the former members of the 9/11 commission did not prioritize their recommendations or their findings, and each of the former commissioners emphasizes different items. The former commissioners do not appear to agree on which items are highest priority.

    3. Why are the commission's recommendations not being implemented?

    With only a few exceptions, the 9/11 commission's recommendations are being implemented -- just not in the way or with the speed and thoroughness that the former commissioners would like to see.

    This is due to a wide variety of causes: In some cases, our elected and appointed officials have different priorities; in others, they simply have not yet figured out how to implement the proposals.

    The recommendation to distribute federal homeland security grants based on risk rather than politically derived formula is not being fully implemented because a handful of small-state senators in key positions do not want to allow a reduction in federal largess to their constituents.

    The recommendation to improve airline passenger pre-screening, which the administration accepts, has not been implemented because the Transportation Security Administration has struggled to create a system that simultaneously improves security, works seamlessly with airline passenger databases, protects privacy, and has broad-based political and consumer support.

    In short, each of the commission's recommendations faces its own particular difficulties.

    4. The 9/11 commission faulted the intra-government communication prior to September 11, especially the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI. Has intra-governmental coordination improved since then?

    Yes, information sharing within the U.S. government and particularly between the CIA and the FBI on counterterrorism matters has improved markedly since September 11. Most of the reforms leading to better information sharing were begun before the 9/11 commission came into existence, and the commission by and large endorsed the recommendations of another study group, the Markle Task Force on National Security in the Information Age (www.markletaskforce.orgexternal link).

    5. The 9/11 commission report said the U.S. government did not appreciate the threat of al Qaeda before September 11. Does the government understand the terrorist threat now? Is the threat different in 2005 from what it was in 2001?

    While surprise is always possible, the U.S. government does now have a strong understanding of contemporary terrorist threats and does take them very, very seriously.

    The threat today has changed markedly since 2001. Al Qaeda as we knew it no longer exists -- it no longer has a sanctuary in Afghanistan, and no longer is able to recruit, train, organize and dispatch teams of terrorist operatives with impunity and ease.

    Al Qaeda's ideology, however, has spread widely, essentially metastasizing into countless ad hoc, loosely connected and locally based extremist groups, some fraction of which have and will launch terrorist attacks.

    The complexity of threat clearly increased over the past four years, and in some parts of the world -- principally the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe -- it has without doubt gotten worse.

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