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DHS releases status report on 9/11 recommendations, cites progress

By Jim Barnett, CNN Senior Producer
  • DHS reports "significant progress" in improving national security since 9/11
  • "We have made great strides to secure our nation," DHS Secretary Napolitano says
  • Sen. Collins cites "troubling" cases; "We are truly only as strong as our weakest link"
  • Former 9/11 Commission members say "We are not as safe as we could or should be"

Washington (CNN) -- Citing "significant progress," the Department of Homeland Security Thursday released a report looking at how far the U.S. has come in the past seven years to fulfilling specific 9/11 Commission recommendations.

"Over the past decade, we have made great strides to secure our nation against a large attack or disaster, to protect critical infrastructure and cyber networks, and to engage a broader range of Americans in the shared responsibility for security, " said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement released by the department.

The report looks at issues ranging from screening for explosives, protecting cyber networks, and strengthening airline passenger programs to bolstering security along the U.S. border.

One of the highlights is the screening of airline passengers, which has evolved over the past 10 years in response to the 9/11 attacks by using a multi-layered, risk-based system.

"Today, DHS requires all airlines flying to the United States from foreign countries to provide Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Records prior to departure; checks 100 percent of passengers on flights flying to, from, or within the United States against government watch-lists through its Secure Flight program; and has expanded trusted traveler programs, expediting travel for passengers who provide biometric identification and pass rigorous, recurrent security checks," said a homeland security news release.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, there were limited federal security requirements in place for screening air cargo and luggage.

"Today all checked and carry-on baggage is screened for explosives. The capacity of frontline security personnel and new technologies also has significantly expanded to more than 52,000 TSA personnel serving on the frontlines at over 450 U.S. airports today," DHS pointed out.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said the DHS report card was self-administered. "When it comes to our homeland security, however, we are truly only as strong as our weakest link," she said.

In a statement, Collins acknowledged improved information-sharing but added, "Troubling examples of not connecting the dots persist, including the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber."

Collins cited strengthened airline passenger pre-screening but pointed out the recent incident when a man was able to fly cross-country without a valid government ID and an expired boarding pass.

"At the other extreme, it troubles many Americans to see TSA screeners putting the very young and the very elderly through intrusive, and in most cases unnecessary, pat downs," Collins said.

On the issue of U.S. border security since the 9/11 Commission issued its recommendations, DHS points to "unprecedented levels of personnel, technology and resources to the Southwest border...and critical security improvements along the Northern and maritime borders."

Collins said, "DHS has bolstered the security of U.S. borders and identification documents, but two Iraqi refugees associated with Al Qaida in Iraq were arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky. How a bomb maker, whose fingerprints we had had for some time, was able to enter our country on humanitarian grounds remains an unanswered and troubling question."

"This year, we will commemorate the worst attack ever on the United States. In doing so, we must ask ourselves,

Are we safer?' Or, are we just safer from the tactics the terrorists already have tried?" Collins said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano was asked in a CNN interview about the progress report and specifically why it did not cite a nuclear threat among the immediate concerns.

"The conclusion is meant to suggest we can't be focused just on one thing or one group. We have to focus on many different types of tactics, many different types of techniques, many different types of groups or individuals. And so we do have concerns in the nuclear realm, the biological realm, the chemical realm, all of the different tactics that could potentially be used by a terrorist," Napolitano told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Former 9/11 Commission Chair Tom Kean and Vice Chair Lee Hamilton pointed to progress and said the nation is safer since 9/11.

"However, important 9/11 Commission recommendations remain unfulfilled. As a result, we are not as safe as we could or should be," they said in a joint statement.

Kean and Hamilton called for a unified command structure to provide better coordination among multiple agencies, improved interoperable communications for first responders and upgrades to transportation security technology.