Image: Coast Guard Stages Anti-Terrorist Drills in New York Harbor
Coast Guard sailors brandish weapons during a drill in New York Harbor.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
ANALYSIS

Two years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shocked the government into throwing billions of dollars at a morass of nationwide vulnerabilities under the rubric of “homeland security” the question remains: Are we safer today? Experts are split on the subject. Government officials publicly say the nation is safer while privately admitting that any high-level disaster, such as the recent blackout in the Northeast, raises both the hair on the backs of their necks and the specter of terrorism.

A majority of Americans say they don’t feel safer than a year ago, according to a survey released Monday. That survey found 76 percent of those polled were “concerned or very concerned” about another terrorist attack. The survey, conducted by Columbia University, “reflects an extraordinary lack of public confidence in the nation’s level of preparedness for bioterrorism and other major disasters,” Irwin Redlener, who directed the poll, told the Associated Press.

The truth is that it’s impossible to make America 100 percent secure. Homeland security officials face long odds every day just to maintain a heightened level of security. They do that through a strategy dubbed “layered defenses,” which, in theory, combine the capabilities of groups like the Coast Guard with those of U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which all now work within the Department of Homeland Security.

'Our work is not done'
The magnitude of the job isn’t lost on DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, on whose shoulders the primary responsibility for defending the United States against future terrorist acts ultimately falls.

After two years of working to patch the holes in the nation’s security, “clearly, our work is not done,” Ridge said in a speech last week in which he announced a sweeping reorganization of his department. “In Homeland Security, we have to be right several thousand times a day,” Ridge cautioned. “The terrorist only has to be right once or twice.”

Now Ridge’s 6-month-old department finds itself strapped for cash, harshly criticized by both parties in Congress and bruised by some political infighting among members of the executive branch. Meanwhile, Ridge has tens of thousands of unofficial constituents in the form of state and local officials all clamoring for more attention, better funding and improved access to classified information.

Below is a summary of what has or hasn’t been done across several sectors in the name of homeland security. We’ve given our own marks — from 1 to 5 with 5 being the best — to the government’s efforts. At the end of this article, you’ll have a chance to weigh in with your own grades.

Aviation
In the post 9/11 era, aviation security has received the most time, attention and funding. Passenger and baggage screening has increased dramatically as the government federalized some 50,000 airport screeners. All checked baggage is screened for explosives. Cockpit doors are armored. Pilots are being trained to carry weapons in the cockpit and thousands of federal air marshals ride shotgun on an undisclosed number of flights every day. The price tag: $9 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, and another $5.2 billion penciled into the 2004 budget for aviation security.

All these efforts have made it much more difficult to hijack another airplane, experts agree. But gaping holes remain. Airport perimeter security across the country is a vulnerable “back door” for illegal entry, experts say. The issue was highlighted last month when three people were found wandering the active runways of New York’s Kennedy International Airport, having gained access after their fishing raft was blown ashore. Ridge candidly acknowledged the problem during an interview Tuesday with NBC News: “Unauthorized people are going to get access to airports every day.”

Air cargo security is another area that’s received little attention. Air cargo isn’t screened if it comes from a “known shipper” and any package weighing less than 16 ounces, from whatever source, gets a free ride. About 22 percent of all air cargo is shipped on commercial passenger airliners. Congress is trying to pass legislation requiring air cargo to receive the same scrutiny as passenger baggage. The lax security of the air cargo and “known shipper” program jumped to center stage on Tuesday when it was discovered that a 25-year-old man shipped himself across the country in a wooden crate. The TSA says it’s going to bolster the “known shipper” program to make it more reliable and is looking at a program to have bomb-sniffing dogs screen 16-ounce or less packages.

RATING: Between 3 and 4

Ground transportation
Mass transit systems — buses, subways, passenger trains — create a tempting target. The FBI has issued several notices since 9/11 warning of possible attacks while noting that these systems continue to be of interest to al-Qaida.

Difficult to protect, nearly impossible to screen the passengers without grinding the system to halt, the nation’s ground transportation system presents security officials with a Herculean task. Most post 9/11 security measures are simply beefing up procedures or numbers of personnel are already in place. Some subway systems, like the Metro in Washington, D.C., have installed bomb-resistant trash cans. The Metro also has conducted air-flow tests to better judge what might happen if an airborne toxin were released and installed a chemical detection unit to act as an early warning device. In New York, abandoned and suspicious packages are now X-rayed.

Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail system, now limits the number of carry-on items and has increased the number of undercover and uniformed police. Bridges and tunnels are now a regular security priority in major cities and at times of high alert they are among the first duty stations assigned to armed National Guard troops.

Just last month, the Transportation Security Administration announced a $20 million grant program for the bus industry to address security problems, such as driver protection, tracking and communications, passenger and baggage screening. The money also is being used to increase physical security at bus terminals, TSA said.

RATING: 3

Borders
Securing America’s borders has been a problem since well before 9/11. The task is mind-numbing. The northern border is 5,500 miles long and there’s another 2,000 in the Southwest. Most of it is unprotected and unpatrolled. There are more than 300 ports of entry through which nearly 500 million people pass each year.

All told, there are some 18,000 former Customs, INS and agriculture inspectors now merged into one unit called the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division. There are some 9,500 Border Patrol officers, the overwhelming majority of those working on the southern border. But the numbers aren’t enough and the money isn’t there to provide for more.

In June, officials at ports of entry were told to begin cutting back on the number of fully qualified immigration inspectors who worked on weekends and holidays because of a $20 million budget shortfall. Lesser trained customs inspectors were thrown into the breach to handle the duty because they get paid less on those days. In addition, the customs inspectors don’t have access to critical databases needed to check on whether a person trying to enter the U.S. has a criminal record or is on a terrorist watch list.

CBP officials acknowledge the budget constraints but say the problems will be solved in October when the new budget kicks in. Further, CBP officials say all inspectors are adequately cross-trained and that security isn’t an issue. Union leaders for customs and immigration inspectors as well as the inspectors themselves disagree.

Last week, Ridge announced a reorganization plan in which all 18,000 CBP inspectors will be fully cross-trained, a move that will eventually eliminate the legacy distinctions of “customs” or “immigration” or “agricultural” inspector. But that program only begins in October with the first class of new “CBP Officers,” not in the field until after the first of the year.

RATING: 3

Ports
A single terrorist incident at a U.S. seaport could effectively cripple the U.S. economy for months, say security experts. Increasingly, a larger majority of the nation’s trade is handled by a few major seaports. A few well-placed attacks in the main channels of ports along the Gulf Coast and a majority of the nation’s ability to move refined oil into and out of the country abruptly stops.

And yet the nation’s ports are begging for adequate security. The American Association of Port Authorities says it would take an estimated $2 billion to beef up security for the nation’s seaports. The federal government has given about $100 million in security grants to ports and made another $247 million available, but experts have said that’s only a small part of what’s needed given the scope of the vulnerabilities.

There are some 12 million cargo containers in the worldwide inventory and nearly half of those flow through U.S. seaports annually. “That fact alone represents a challenge for homeland security and an opportunity to be exploited by those who wish us harm,” said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, testifying before Congress earlier this year. Despite aggressive moves by the CBP to ratchet up security with more container inspections, only 4 percent of all containers ever get inspected.

“Cargo containers offer a frighteningly simple and anonymous way to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee.

A project called the Container Security Initiative within DHS works with major international and high-risk ports to identify, target and search suspect cargo. But the number of U.S. agents assigned to this program is woeful, says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. CSI “has not revolutionized our ability to inspect,” Flynn said.

Even the ports themselves don’t really know the full extent of their risks. Port vulnerability studies for the nation’s 50 largest ports won’t be completed for another four years.

RATING: Between 2 and 3

Infrastructure
Because so much of the nation’s critical infrastructure, which includes everything from waterways to energy plants to pipelines to computer networks, is in the hands of the private sector, government oversight can be dicey. This is particularly true when privately owned infrastructure facilities are asked to make vulnerability studies available to government security personnel. Private sector owners are concerned that such information may be used against them by competitors if the government inadvertently releases the information.

Little has been done beyond beefing up physical security for the nation’s critical infrastructure and such measures often extend merely to things like putting better locks on doors, putting up additional chain-link fences or making sure gates are closed.

Water authority officials cringe when asked about the prospects of fully guarding the nation’s water supply. There are some 54,000 public and private water systems in the nation and for years experts have warned about the need to upgrade, repair and assess the risks associated with them. Those calls for help continue to fall on deaf or distracted ears. Securing the water supply just doesn’t grab the headlines, experts say. And the fiscal realities are a nightmare. To simply put fences around the three raw water reservoirs that the Indianapolis Water Company uses to feed that city’s water needs “would bankrupt the company,” says Peter Beering, IWC’s deputy general counsel.

Of particular concern are the 15,000 chemical plants in the nation that in some manner work with or store enough toxic chemicals to endanger significant numbers of people should any of them be a target of a terrorist attack. More than 100 of these plants are close to major cities. “Chemical facilities are among the potentially most dangerous components of our critical infrastructure,” said Gary Hart, co-chair of an independent task force looking at the nation’s vulnerabilities in a recent Washington Post editorial. “Securing them requires urgent action.” Industry lobbyists successfully fought off a congressional move to require owners of chemical facilities to beef up security despite a GAO report recommending that very action, Hart said.

RATING: 2

Food
The U.S. spends $1 billion a year on inspecting the food supply and still 5,000 people a year die from food-borne illness; another 350,000 are hospitalized. And that’s before you even factor in terrorism of any kind.

Officials are worried about the food supply because a terrorist attack would be extremely difficult to distinguish from an ordinary disease outbreak. Counterterrorism experts say that attacking the food supply probably isn’t a high priority for groups like al-Qaida, which have traditionally wanted to see dramatic, instant results from their attacks, such as explosions and high body counts. Still, attacking the food chain could cause widespread panic and confusion, two factors that terrorists could use as distractions from larger, even more sinister attacks.

To help protect the food supply, the government issued new food-security guidelines and the 2002 bio-terrorism bill authorized more money for food inspectors and better record keeping. Experts say, however, that even with such increased focus on food supply vulnerabilities, the added personnel and funding only begins to scratch the surface.

A recent GAO report noted that although government agencies can provide voluntary security guidelines to food processors to help prevent or mitigate the risk of deliberate contamination, because the guidelines are voluntary, no agency “enforces, monitors, or documents [guideline] implementation.” Government food inspectors are told not to “enforce implementation of security measures,” the GAO report notes, “because of possible release of this information under the Freedom of Information Act.”

RATING: 3

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