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Uncertain state of security

Complexities abound in protecting homeland

By Greg Botelho
CNN

alert system
The color-coded alert system is one security-related change that some call progress, others confusing.
ON CNN TV
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A stay-at-home mom is a cyber-sleuth who monitors extremist Web sites for signs of terrorist activity. CNN's Thelma Gutierrez reports. (January 19)
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(CNN) -- The three and a half years since the September 11, 2001, attacks have brought no new terrorist acts on U.S. soil, but questions continue about the state of the nation's security.

Federal, state and local agencies have created new organizations, attempted to coordinate among existing ones along with the private sector, and crafted policies to preempt and respond to attacks. Add in an evolving threat, persistent alerts, fresh scrutiny on intelligence and other complicating factors, and you have a process that security expert Frank Cilluffo compared to "building an airplane mid-flight."

"You can't codify homeland security into a neat box," said Cilluffo, director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Institute and former special assistant to President Bush. "You cannot separate foreign, health, agricultural, economic, energy and other policies. And all of it raises other issues, like freedom of privacy."

Sweeping reforms have not been without controversy. Some claim anti-terror measures, such as the Patriot Act, threaten civil rights or damage the country's credibility and, thus, its security. And for all that's been done, criticisms circulate about a host of perceived holes in the system.

The challenge isn't just catching up to ensure optimal organization and cooperation between pertinent U.S. and international groups, but also keeping up with present and future threats. Knowing how safe the nation is requires knowing the condition, movements, motivations and methods of America's enemies.

"As we get better, so do they. As we get harder, they'll figure out ways to get around hardened targets or go after softer ones," said Jonathan Duecker, Pennsylvania's homeland security director. "This homeland security game is relatively new, and there is a lot of learning."

For now, authorities will build relationships, revamp institutions and infrastructure and hunt down threats in and outside the United States. The greatest danger, they say, is complacency.

"Every day we don't have an attack gives us one day to get better," said James McMahon, head of New York's Office of Public Security. "If we ever decide we're at full preparedness, we're making ourselves very vulnerable."

Current assessment

In a national CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted between January 7-9, 39 percent of respondents said they felt a terrorist attack would likely occur inside the United States over the next several weeks, the lowest such figure since September 11, 2001. About a year earlier, that figure was 46 percent and, in March 2003 after U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, it was at 73 percent.

"The further away from 9/11 we get, the harder it is to get people engaged," Duecker admitted.

Outgoing U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge this month attributed a decrease in intercepted terror threat information to coalition military activity, corralling terror leaders and funds, and domestic measures to "harden" prime targets. But some experts, noting that recent "chatter" jumps have not equated to domestic attacks, said it would be dangerous to assume terrorists' tactics and means have not evolved in recent years.

start quoteIf we ever decide we're at full preparedness, we're making ourselves very vulnerable.end quote
-- James McMahon, director of New York's Office of Public Security

To keep up with the threats requires funds to replace outdated equipment, buy new materials and train personnel, money that Duecker says has already begun dropping off incrementally.

New York City received a significant increase in the latest round of funding, for instance, as did Washington. But money for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, located between these two cities, stayed essentially static, much to Duecker's dismay, while other areas saw drop-offs. Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey, for example, saw 60 and 17 percent decreases, respectively, in the latest round of funding -- two of several municipalities nationwide to face such a shortfall.

Finding a fair funding formula is one of many complex tasks facing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as state and local agencies charged with safeguarding the nation.

Numerous government divisions -- which handle everything from law enforcement to agriculture, intelligence to health, the military to the economy -- have a stake. Experts say that it is critical that businesses (not just government agencies) have clear, firm security guidelines and up-to-date training to address threats, especially given that many targets are in the private sector.

Convoluted bureaucracies, entrenched interests and large egos could all aggravate an already difficult process. And each group -- public or private -- comes equipped with its own issues, tools and approaches, notes Duecker.

Tom Ridge
Outgoing Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge linked a drop in recorded terrorist "chatter" with government actions.

"Not too many people at the state and local level are dedicated full time to homeland security," said McMahon, a former New York State Police superintendent. "They've had to take on new responsibilities in addition to what they do routinely. It's human nature you kind of drop back."

From international to local

For all the meetings, bureaucratic moves and funding spats, the post-September 11 environment puts perhaps the greatest burden on first responders to track down threats and handle emergencies.

"As tough as the federal issues are, it's the men and women in the frontlines ... who will ultimately determine if the battle is won or lost," said Cilluffo.

Duecker, a former DEA agent, noted a "bona fide nexus between common criminals and transnational terrorism" -- saying many terrorists get funds from criminal activity. This makes it important for law enforcement to follow the final destination of funds from larcenies, money laundering, drug deals and other crimes.

Gathering intelligence, "the lifeblood for every facet in the war on terrorism," Cilluffo said, works best when more people, in more communities, contribute.

start quoteThe further away from 9/11 we get, the harder it is to get people engaged.end quote
-- Jonathan Duecker, director of Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security

While terrorism used to be a federal matter, McMahon said, today officials cannot afford to "discount the 680,000 sets of eyes, 70,000 in New York alone" of local fire and police. The September 11 hijackers, after all, used ATMs, were pulled over by police, visited establishments and did other things that might have been spotted by alert authorities or citizens, he added.

This need for quality intelligence has put renewed importance on international cooperation, at a time when America's reputation worldwide is tenuous in some circles.

Invading Iraq without a full United Nations mandate; torture claims; mass detentions of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; and other developments have hurt the United States' credibility, and its security, said Seattle University law professor Ron Slye. Anti-American sentiment may impair international cooperation, as well as spawn new terrorists, he added.

"It gives a lot of fodder to people who don't understand the United States, but say that it is an evil empire bent on dominating the world and only gives lip service to human rights," said Slye. "It's a very serious problem, and the administration and the country as a whole need to be very serious about countering it."

Cilluffo, having recently worked in the White House, dismisses the notion of any international breach, saying countries that may object publicly to U.S. policies cooperate effectively behind the scenes. But he does note difficulty in simultaneously preserving a country's security against terrorists and its civil rights.

Gitmo detainees
Critics say moves such as holding detainees without trial damages U.S. credibility, thus security.

"Terrorism first and foremost is a psychological weapon aimed at undermining policies and values," Cilluffo said. "It's a tough balance."

A difficult measure

Reports vary on the likelihood of a nuclear, chemical, biological or other terrorist attack inside the United States in the near future. Regardless, some critics say not addressing a number of prevalent problems could have dire consequences.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware called it "criminal" that "there is no basic security" for the U.S. railroad system. The DHS denies that assertion.

An EPA report, meanwhile, found water supplies vulnerable to cyber-attack, according to the Associated Press.

The Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General has been one prominent critic. He recently reported that nonresidents using stolen passports can easily enter the United States, and even faulted the DHS for mismanaging grants intended to bolster port security.

While admitting unresolved issues, "substantial progress" has been made in recent years, said McMahon.

Communication between federal agencies, like the FBI and local authorities, has improved greatly in recent years, said Duecker. Would-be attacks reportedly have been thwarted in Jordan, the United Kingdom and the Philippines, Cilluffo said, adding that other terrorist operations have been averted behind the scenes.

bush signing
Bush signs an intelligence reform bill, part of an effort to improve the nation's security.

"These are all delicate issues, but there's a success story that hasn't been fully told," he said.

Yet the level of success, like much else related to homeland security, is largely an unknown.

"It's very hard to quantify how successful a counterterrorism operation is because how can you know you foiled something?" Duecker said.

Uncertainty is inherent when targets -- soft and hard -- are everywhere, and the opposition is ephemeral, not clearly perched across a battlefield. That does not mean initiatives to protect America should not continue, experts say, but only that any such efforts and debates must take into account the complicated reality.

"We'll never be in a position where we can protect everything, all the time," Cilluffo said. "We can't afford it, and we don't want to infringe on the values we're trying to preserve."


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