Can We Really Stop Another Terrorist Attack?

As the nation approaches the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there is fresh unease about the government’s ability to prevent another strike on American soil.

The recent bombings in London and Egypt, yet another overhaul of the federal Homeland Security Department and nervousness about the Iraq war are prompting fresh debate about whether the country is making sufficient progress against the terrorist threat.

“The key questions are: Are we as safe as we need to be? Are we as safe as we can be? And are we as safe as we think we are?” said Clark Ervin, former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. “The answer to all of these questions, sadly, is no.”

Opinion polls show the public’s expectation of a domestic attack is rising, with nearly half telling the Gallup Poll they fear that they or someone in their family will become a terrorism victim. Also growing are the numbers of Americans who believe the Iraq war has made the United States less safe from the terrorism threat. Meanwhile, only 34 percent think the United States is winning the terror war, a July Gallup Poll showed.

The angst spilled over in Congress recently, when Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., complained about inaction by the Homeland Security Department in assessing the threat of a nuclear bomb’s detonation in a major American city.

“There is a great deal of anxiety on the Hill and in the country about how well the Department of Homeland Security is doing,” Dicks told the department’s new chief, Michael Chertoff. “You have got to show the country that there is a leader now in charge of homeland security. … We have got to deal with the major threats … the use of a nuclear device, for example.”

Chertoff defended his early stewardship of homeland-security efforts, and in fact endorsed Dicks’ general point, saying the United States must devote the vast majority of its prevention resources to stopping catastrophic attacks.

To the dismay of big-city officials who want more money spent on mass-transit security, Chertoff has been using his honeymoon period as homeland-security chief to argue that the country can’t afford to waste precious dollars trying to stop subway bombings.

“A fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people,” Chertoff said. “When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”

Although Chertoff is winning some plaudits for his focus on risk assessment, critics say the country’s overall homeland security remains far too weak, rife with wasteful spending and unprepared to meet the challenges of another attack.

“America does not have a culture of preparedness,” said Jay Carafano, a security expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank who in a recent analysis suggested homeland-security officials have been manufacturing “symbolic programs that create the illusion of caring.”

Government officials say it should not be surprising that it would take some time for the massive homeland-security bureaucracy _ now just two-and-a-half years old _ to get its arms around the monumental challenge of protecting such a sprawling country from attack. The Department of Homeland Security, authorized by Congress in November 2002, is a compilation of 22 separate federal agencies employing 180,000 people.

“It took several decades of organizational and legislative tweaking to revitalize the … Department of Defense,” said Tom Ridge, the homeland-security department’s inaugural head. Ramping up a national anti-terrorism effort is necessarily an evolutionary process, Ridge said, because Americans are slowly coming to grips with the reality of a newly unsafe world.

Ridge and other officials involved in the terrorism fight also contend they’ve made major progress. “We are, I will say, far safer than we were before September 11th,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

But critics say that, given the potential consequences of a catastrophic attack, federal officials have not moved smartly enough, or quickly enough. At the congressional hearing where he lectured Chertoff, Dicks noted that a nuclear bomb could kill 1 million people in New York or Washington.

This and other hearings in Congress this summer have highlighted the enormity of the challenge facing officials, and the difficulty of choosing among vastly different prevention strategies.

Chertoff is attempting to give the Homeland Security Department a harder-nosed edge by adopting the “risk-assessment” model for determining what merits taxpayer dollars and what doesn’t. He stuck with that line even in the aftermath of the London subway bombings, angering big-city politicians who wanted to add millions to mass-transit security.

With some reluctance, Congress is also shifting to the risk-assessment standard. Members of Congress have come under harsh criticism for handing out millions in homeland-security grants to states like Wyoming and South Dakota _ places that are deemed low security risks. But for the second straight year they are reducing the proportion of money going to largely rural states while beefing up funds for big cities.

Even then, however, there are widespread debates over what constitutes the best use of homeland-security money. Should aviation security continue to be the No. 1 priority? Should more go into border controls? Is technology the answer?

Veronique de Rugy, a critic of homeland-security spending from her perch at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, says federal officials are right to focus on detecting a nuclear bomb that might enter the country through one of its ports. But she says the deployment of 470 radiation portal monitors is a good example of how the government may be wasting enormous sums of money.

Experts on nuclear security don’t believe the monitors can detect, with any reliability, the highly enriched uranium that is at the heart of a nuclear device, she said.

“Have we really spent $800 million for nothing?” she wrote for the Web site Tech Central Station. “Possibly.”

Some say that, given the difficulty of building reliable defenses against terrorism, the government ought to spend far more on intelligence aimed at foiling plots before they unfold.

According to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, only 8 percent of federal homeland-security dollars are devoted to intelligence and counterterrorism this year. By comparison, 37 percent of the funds are being spent on border and transportation security operations, 31 percent on protecting critical infrastructure and 17 percent for emergency preparedness.

Michael O’Hanlon, a security expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, says much more needs to go toward counterterrorism, particularly in the 25 to 35 largest American cities.

O’Hanlon recently recommended that Congress pay for 10,000 additional police in those cities who, working jointly with the FBI, would be the eyes and ears that might uncover domestic terrorist cells.

“Too many localities, even major ones, assume that they will not be targets in the future simply because they have not been the sites of successful attacks in the past,” he said.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., offered similar advice last week.

“It’s more likely to be some local cop coming from the Dunkin’ Donut shop, going behind a super-mall … that detects a guy climbing out of a Dumpster who just put sarin gas in the ventilation system,” said Biden.