Another major terrorist attack is a certainty, officials say
Terrorists are always looking for new ways to strike.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The threat of terrorism against the United States remains chillingly lethal five years after 9/11, and officials predict another massive attack is not a matter of if -- but when.
Despite a government overhaul and more than $250 billion spent to bolster security on airlines, at borders and in seaports, few doubt al-Qaida's intent to strike the U.S. again. That the nation hasn't been hit since Sept. 11, 2001, may say as much about terrorists' patience as it does about steps taken to stop them.
"I know of nobody in the intelligence field who doesn't believe there will be another attack," said Thomas Kean, former New Jersey governor and Republican chair of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the government's security missteps leading up to the 2001 hijackings.
"There's going to be another attack," Kean said. "They just can't tell you when."
In a new age of rapid and widespread ID checks, locked and bulletproof cockpit doors in airliners, armed pilots, tracking foreigners' visas and monitoring Muslim and Arab communities, few expect a precise repeat of the plot that used airline hijackings to bring down big buildings.
The unsettling reality of terrorism, however, is that it is always in search of new ways to accomplish mass death and destruction. And it's always in search of the weakest link.
Authorities have disrupted a number of high-profile plots, including last month's bombing scare on as many as 10 Britain-to-U.S. flights. The CIA has helped ensnare some 5,000 terror suspects around the world. And the government has imposed hundreds of security measures on foreign visitors and U.S. residents alike, from making travelers take off their shoes at airport checkpoints to eavesdropping on phone and e-mail conversations.
But glaring gaps in the security net remain.
Undercover inspectors testing the nation's security system have repeatedly sneaked weapons through airport checkpoints, entered the country with fake identification and foiled detectors that catch the trace amounts of radiation in kitty litter and bananas, but not always nuclear materials. Air testers to sniff out biological agents are becoming obsolete. And not all port or airline cargo is rigorously inspected.
Responding to disasters
And, as Hurricane Katrina showed last year, disaster response systems at all levels of government are woefully unprepared for a catastrophe.
"No matter what you do, it's not enough," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., co-chair of a congressional 9/11 caucus. "But the systems we've worked hard on to put in place are not working."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose department was created in 2003 as a result of 9/11, points to strides made in sharing intelligence and screening passengers and cargo on flights and at seaports as proof that the country has been made safer without shutting down commerce. Yet he acknowledges more needs to be done in his agency that largely grapples with reacting to past crises while also thinking about what terrorists might try next.
The intelligence community spends a significant amount of time doing what Chertoff described as "putting ourselves in the heads of terrorists -- looking at emerging techniques and trying to figure out how terrorists might exploit our systems."
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