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September 9, 2011

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US safer but still not safe enough

PROTECTING America from another large-scale terrorist attack, or a small one, remains a work in progress, reports Nancy Benac.

The United States is safer, but not safe enough.

In the decade since the September 11 attacks, the government has taken giant steps to protect the nation from terrorists, spending eye-popping sums to smarten up the federal bureaucracy, hunt down enemies, strengthen airline security, secure US borders, reshape America's image and more. Still, the effort remains a work in progress, and in some cases a work stalled.

Whole alphabets of acronyms have been born and died in pursuit of homeland security, a phrase that wasn't even used much before 9/11.

Hello, TSA, DNI, DHS, NCTC, CVE, NSI and ICE. Goodbye, TTIC, INS and more.

Once travelers used to be asked a few questions about whether they'd packed their own bags. Now, people routinely strip off their belts and shoes, dump their gels in plastic bags, power up their laptops to prove they aren't bombs and get full body scans and pat downs once reserved for suspected criminals.

The US has gone from "Let's roll" to "Don't touch my junk."

The bipartisan September 11 Commission in 2004 set out a 585-page road map for an America that is "safer, stronger, wiser."

Many of the commission's recommendations are now reality. But in some cases, results haven't lived up to expectations. Other proposals are just that, ideas awaiting action.

"What I've come to appreciate is there's no magic wand," says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who says overall progress has been significant.

But remember how some police and firefighters who rushed to the twin towers in New York couldn't talk to one other because their radios weren't in sync? There's still no nationwide communications network for disasters, as the commission envisioned, although there's some progress in cities.

It's understandable if you've never heard of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created to ensure the government doesn't go overboard with new terrorism-fighting powers bestowed by the Patriot Act and other measures. The board has no members, no staff, no office.

Despite a top-to-bottom overhaul of the intelligence superstructure, it's still hard to tease out critical clues to prevent an attack.

On Christmas Day 2009, lots of people in government had information about a Nigerian whose behavior was raising red flags. But no one put it all together, so Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on to a plane for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. Only his failure to detonate the bomb saved the day.

Lee Hamilton, a cochairman of the September 11 commission, says it's probably a combination of hard work and good luck that's kept the US from experiencing another big terrorist attack. But he worries that success is breeding complacency.

"The lack of urgency concerns me," Hamilton says. "The likelihood is that sometime in the future, we will be attacked again."

A look at some commission recommendations and results:

Recommendation: Tighten security checks on all airline passengers. Give priority to improving ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers.

Result: US$50 billion poured into aviation safety. Awkward moments and intrusive pat-downs in the search for a system that protects passengers without infuriating them: A gravely ill 95-year-old woman had to remove her wet diaper before she could pass security in Florida in June. Video of a 6-year-old girl getting frisked in Louisiana in March went viral. "Don't touch my junk," became a national rallying cry.

Recommendation: Establish a National Counterterrorism Center ... Position of Director of Central Intelligence should be replaced by a National Intelligence Director.

Result: Intelligence-sharing policies have been turned nearly upside down to facilitate management and sharing of rushing streams of information flowing through 15 agencies. A new National Counterterrorism Center is supposed to bring together intelligence and analysis across the government. There's a new director of national intelligence, a distinct agency, to coordinate it all. The intelligence budget has more than doubled.

Coordination and integration remain a problem.

Terrorist watchlists have been merged. Even a beat cop in Seattle can check if a speeding motorist is a known or suspected terrorist.

Recommendation: Create a nationwide radio network to allow different public safety agencies to communicate with one another during disasters.

Result: Still no network, legislation still pending.

As fires raged at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, firefighters, police and other emergency personnel couldn't effectively communicate because of their archaic and incompatible radios.

Recommendation: Create a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to guidelines and protection of civil liberties.

Result: Within weeks of the attacks, President Bush signed the Patriot Act, giving the government powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. That generated worries that personal and civil liberties would be overrun. The five-person civil liberties oversight board has been dormant since 2008.

Recommendation: Make a long-term commitment to building a secure and stable Afghanistan that cannot harbor terrorism.

Result: Huge, long-term commitment in dollars and military might. But Afghanistan is far from secure. Civilian deaths remain very high. The government has little power outside Kabul. As Obama seeks to pull out combat troops over three years, the government may weaken further. But Al-Qaida has had to relocate much operational planning to Pakistan and Yemen.

Recommendation: Support Pakistan's government's struggle against extremists with an effort ranging from military aid to support for better education - if leaders will make tough choices.

Result: Pakistan has embraced democracy, after years of a military-led regime. The government has been shored up and hit some terrorists. Yet Washington's US$20 billion support haven't severed links between militants and Pakistan's army and intelligence services. The Taliban can cross into Afghanistan freely to fight US forces, and Pakistanis are very anti-American. Bilateral ties are strained. The US killing of Osama bin Laden near Pakistan's capital deepened tensions. The country's direction is unpredictable. Many Americans oppose giving more aid.

Recommendation: Confront problems in US-Saudi relationship.

Result: The Saudi government has fought al-Qaida on its own turf and proved a sturdy ally against Iran, yet has failed to stem the flow of support for groups hostile to the US. The two countries disagree on the wave of protests in North Africa and the Middle East.

Recommendation: Engage other nations in overall strategy against terrorism.

Result: Bush got strong backing but unity splintered when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Still, countries are sharing more intelligence and cooperating to fight terrorist financing. No government lets al-Qaida operate freely.


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