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Assessing security



Published: Sat, September 2, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The U.S. government needs to sharpen its priorities, some security experts say.

MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- In the five years since terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans have accepted inconvenience, sacrificed personal liberties and paid billions of dollars for a security clampdown that touches virtually every aspect of their lives.

And we're still not safe.

A close examination of the federal government's homeland security effort shows that there have been major accomplishments since the attacks Sept. 11, 2001. But it also reveals how vulnerable the nation remains to catastrophe.

Federal officials and security experts directly involved in the cat-and-mouse game with terrorists have realized that the nation faces more threats than the government can ever combat. The result is a deadly guessing game on a global scale, with security officials often one step behind the terrorists.

"We can't cover every conceivable target against every conceivable attack at every waking moment," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor in security studies. "You strengthen one set of targets, they'll shift to another."

Protect against box cutters, and the terrorists try shoe bombs. Protect against shoe bombs, and the terrorists try liquid explosives. Protect airliners, and the terrorists blow up buses and trains. The list of possibilities is endless, but the government's resources aren't.

Billions spent

The nation has spent more than $280 billion on the domestic side of the war on terrorism over the past five years to hire thousands more FBI and Border Patrol agents and buy high-tech devices to secure the nation's planes, trains, ports, nuclear reactors and other potential targets. U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $400-plus billion more.

It's a commitment that far exceeds the post-World War II Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe, but it's not nearly enough to close off every possible line of attack. Some experts say part of the money has been wasted on efforts to combat nonexistent or highly unlikely threats, while other, more pressing risks were ignored.

In the frenzied attempt to patch holes in the nation's defenses, government agencies seemed to buy a device for everything: from computerized fingerprinting systems to trace explosives detectors to full-body scanners to sensors that pick up deadly germs and radiation. Some of it works as advertised; some of it doesn't.

"The problem with much of this technology is that it's valuable only if you guess the plot," said Bruce Schneier, author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World." "We could sit here and come up with millions of identifiable risks. If we had infinite money we could address everything. But we have finite money and we should pick and choose carefully."

Experts' assessment

Independent security experts say the government should sharpen its priorities and adopt a long-term strategy that reflects a deeper understanding of the enemy.

Federal officials take pride in the fact that the United States has avoided a major terrorist attack since Sept. 11, but they're under no illusions that it couldn't happen again.

"I don't think there's any agency that exists that's going to be able to stop every single plan every single time," Assistant FBI Director John Miller said.

Americans are safer than they were five years ago. But any accounting of the government's performance shows missteps and gaps along with the successes.

Some counterterrorism experts think it's only a matter of time before terrorists unleash weapons of mass destruction on an American city.

With so much radioactive material available worldwide, some of it is bound to fall into terrorists' hands, said retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, the former commander of U.S. nuclear forces and the former head of nuclear security at the Energy Department.

Gaps in port security could allow terrorists to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country. Or they could assemble a "dirty bomb" by using a conventional explosive to spew radioactive material.

Little preparation

The government has done little to prepare for the possibility of a radioactive event.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has spent billions of dollars stockpiling medicines to treat anthrax, smallpox and nerve-gas victims, it's failed to buy experimental drugs that could help hundreds of thousands of potential victims of acute radiation exposure.

The Homeland Security Department is working on a contract for anti-radiation drugs, but only for enough medicine to treat 100,000 people.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge harbors deeper worries: that terrorists will genetically engineer a germ "that is communicable for which we have no antidote and nothing to diagnose."

The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies have made pursuing terrorists their top priority since Sept. 11, and they've had some notable successes as well as some embarrassing mistakes.

Federal officials say they've disrupted at least 10 terrorist plots since Sept. 11 and played a role in the recent arrests in London.

"We know a lot about a lot of people here in the United States and overseas," said John Pistole, the FBI's No. 2 official. "Our concern, of course, is in those gaps in intelligence."

Successes, failures

More than 260 defendants have been convicted of terrorism-related charges in the United States, and trials are pending for 150 more.

Charges have been dismissed against eight defendants, and four defendants were deported after charges were dropped, according to Justice Department estimates released in June. The Justice Department didn't report how many defendants were acquitted.

But critics contend that the domestic law enforcement agencies' record is marred by inflated claims, mistaken arrests and botched prosecutions.

"What they've been able to find is people who are loosely talking about doing damage to the United States and, self-evidently, neither have the resources nor the intelligence nor the money to carry these plots out," said Michael Greenberger, a former Clinton administration counterterrorism official.

Lost chances

Others say prosecutors have risked losing out on key evidence by swooping in too early and have snared too many innocent people.

In Detroit, the government dropped charges against members of an alleged "sleeper cell" after discovering that a prosecutor failed to reveal evidence that might have proved their innocence.

In Oregon, FBI agents held lawyer Brandon Mayfield for almost three weeks in 2004, then admitted that a faulty fingerprint analysis had fed their mistaken suspicions that he was linked to the Madrid train bombings.

In Idaho, a federal jury acquitted computer science graduate student Sami Omar Al-Hussayen of charges that he aided terrorists by helping design a Web site for an Islamic nonprofit organization.

When terrorism-related charges couldn't be supported, prosecutors aggressively pursued other criminal charges against suspects, such as for immigration and identity theft violations.

Pistole said the FBI now uses "whatever lawful tools we have" to disrupt a suspected terror plot -- whether the charges appear minor or not. "As long as we have disrupted whatever the plot may be."

Constitutional concerns

The administration has struggled to balance its efforts to improve intelligence with adhering to the Constitution.

The government has appealed an Aug. 17 federal court ruling that struck down an eavesdropping program that targets communications between suspected terrorists overseas and their associates in this country without using warrants. Federal officials say the program has helped disrupt terrorist plots, but they haven't provided any details to support the claim.

Other programs have been scuttled because of civil liberties concerns. Facing complaints from both liberals and conservatives, the government abandoned Operation TIPS, a program that asked citizens to report suspicious activity.

It also scrapped the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness project, which aimed to compile a massive database of public and private records. Yet components of the Total Information Awareness project live on, according to former senior U.S. government officials. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said some of the program's research was quietly transferred to a unit of the eavesdropping National Security Agency under a program code-named "Basketball."

Ill will among Muslims

Attempts to cultivate sources within the Muslim community have been hampered by lingering ill will from heavy-handed tactics in the months after Sept. 11, including voluntary interviews that came off as interrogations, critics said. The FBI also continues to face problems in hiring translators and experts who might make inroads into the Muslim-American community.

"To run an effective counterintelligence organization you have to have intimate knowledge of the people you're trying to penetrate," said Christopher Hamilton, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst who worked on the Sept. 11 investigation.

Experts agree much more needs to be done, but they don't all agree on the priorities and solutions.




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