Homeland Security Threat Raised To Orange
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
Scenes like this national guardsman standing watch at the Golden Gate Bridge during December's Orange alert are a constant reminder that the issue of homeland security is now a part of daily life in America.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
updated 3/2/2004 2:14:23 PM ET 2004-03-02T19:14:23

In countless interviews and surveys, government officials, security experts, pundits, the person that cuts your hair and seven out of 10 New York City cab drivers will acknowledge that the nation is safer today than it was on the morning of 9/11. But repeated polling also shows that a majority of Americans still hold the possibility of another terrorist attack as among their biggest concerns.

President Bush on Tuesday sought to reassure Americans that the country is safer as he marked the one-year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, saying that the war on terrorism, at home and abroad, continues apace.

“We are relentless,” in our pursuit of al-Qaida, Bush said.  “We are strong. We refuse to yield.  The rest of them hear us breathing down their neck.”

Bush used most of his speech to outline major measures that DHS has instituted in defense of the country, including having thousands of air marshals fly on planes every day and more frequent checks of cargo containers arriving at U.S. ports. The president also urged Congress to act quickly on a sweeping multibillion-dollar BioShield program.

Assessing how well the Department of Homeland Security has done in its first year of existence is more nuanced than the simplistic rubric of “safer/not safe,” as even the most ardent critics of the administration's efforts on homeland security will acknowledge. Although tremendous strides have been made toward buttoning up glaring vulnerabilities in domestic security it also is true that huge holes—some experts claim dangerous holes--remain in the fabric of U.S. security efforts.

DHS officials, to their credit, don’t shy away from such assessments. “We know there is much more to do,” DHS Secretary Tom Ridge said in a speech marking his department’s one-year anniversary. There will always be gaps in our security, Ridge and others admit. It’s impossible to protect everything, everywhere because making such a diverse nation secure is part Herculean task, part Gordian knot.

For example, take the seemingly simple task of getting money—already appropriated for by Congress—into the hands of local police, medical and fire department personnel, the so-called “first responders.” Mayors, fire and police chiefs and hospital administrators across the country decry the lack of “homeland security” dollars that have actually reached them.

“As I always say, homeland security money went to the states by Federal Express, but came to cities by Pony Express,” said James A. Garner, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Ridge, when pressed on the issue, says billions of dollars are “in the pipeline” or “on the table” but haven’t been used.

Perhaps one of the most underrated achievements of the DHS is simply that it still exists at all. That the department’s 180,000 employees are getting paid on time (which didn’t happen at first), that it has managed to carve out an organizational identity despite the deep-seated counter current of tens of thousands of employees from “legacy” agencies, such as the U.S. Customs, Immigration and Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation, clinging to their old agency cultures and standards of operation.

The DHS “had a lot of challenges that could have very well brought the enterprise to a screeching halt,” says Asha George, managing Director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security.

The department itself may be intact but one of its best known and most maligned tools, the color-coded terrorist threat level, will soon become a relic. Everyone from the public at large to first responders have been whipsawed by the ping-pong effect of raising and lowering the national terrorism threat level to "orange," or “high alert,” and back down to "yellow," or “elevated” state. Officials worried that jumping to an "orange" alert too often would dull the public’s awareness of any threat.

Now the DHS is developing a system under which threat levels will be tailored to geographic areas, meaning Wyoming won’t be sucked into an “orange” alert every time Washington, D.C., is asked to respond to a high-risk threat.

Throughout the year, -- indeed, from the moment al-Qaida was fingered as the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks -- Americans have been subjected to continuous warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies that terrorists are on the prowl, seeking ways to again wreck havoc inside the U.S.
“People that say [the terrorist risk is] exaggerated aren’t looking at the same world I’m looking at,” said George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence. “We are still at risk.”

It is against this backdrop that critics of the department’s job performance bounce off one unshakably blunt bottom line assessment: Since 9/11 no American has died in a terrorist episode inside U.S. border. Yet.

“There are some who say that we are safer than we were before the attacks of Sept. 11. I believe that is true, but that sets the bar way too low,” said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the ranking minority member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, “The question we must ask today is, ‘Are we as safe as we need to be?’ Unfortunately the answer is ‘No.’”

Aviation security has received a lopsided amount of attention and funding. About $9 billion has been spent on this sector since Sept. 11, 2001. The president’s proposed fiscal year 2005 budget asks for $5.3 billion for the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA has, at times, scrambled for its footing. Although the agency has implemented several new security initiatives, such as arming pilots and increasing the scrutiny of those in the cargo plane industry, the TSA also has suffered major setbacks: a man packed himself into a crate and was flown in a cargo plane across the country; a student trying to prove a point smuggled box-cutters and other banned items onto several flights and stashed them in the airline lavatories where they remained undiscovered for weeks; and more than 1,000 airport baggage and passenger screeners have been fired because of criminal or other undesirable backgrounds.

“We are overly obsessed with airline passenger security,” says Charles Pena, a terrorism expert at the Cato Institute. “We’re so focused on al-Qaida hijacking another plane that we are missing other aspects that we need to pay attention to.”

One of those areas is the people that have access to the runways and therefore the planes themselves, Pena said. “I would tell you that the average airline passenger is more thoroughly scrutinized than the average airport employee that has access to the tarmac,” he said. “That’s a loophole that can be exploited.”

One of the most perplexing aspects of the DHS is how its intelligence analysis unit meshes with others in the U.S. intelligence community. During a recent Senate hearing, Ridge was upbraided for his department’s lack of focus on intelligence matters.

Although the DHS was supposed to be the clearinghouse for all terrorist intelligence, it now seems that agency personnel are lucky to have a desk in the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a unit into which intelligence developed from all federal agencies is fed, analyzed and disseminated. The DHS unit is operating at less than 50 percent of its authorized strength, according to a congressional study released last week.

One of the most immediate and pressing needs in the war on terrorism is the development of a unified terrorist “watch list” in which a dozen such lists maintained by nine agencies is compiled into one master database. The deadline for creating such a list has slipped several times. The latest slip, announced last week, puts completion of the list at the end of this year. That news drew a swift rebuke from former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who also sits on the Senate Government Affairs Committee.

"I cannot fathom why this consolidation has not yet occurred when we know full well the dangers to which a lack of intelligence coordination exposes us,” Lieberman said. “Yet one of the best defensive mechanisms that we could muster, a consolidated watch list of terrorists -- to keep them out if they try to get in, or to identify them if they do slip in -- still is not in place."

Another knock on the DHS: The information flow on terrorism risks doesn’t flow fast enough to state and local officials and first responders. But just last week the DHS announced a sweeping plan to enable real-time information about crimes, natural disaster and potential terrorist acts to reach those at the state and local level. The framework is in place, used now for special events, such as the Super Bowl. A second phase of the program will allow sharing of some categories of classified information, not including “top secret.”

Land borders continue to be a sore spot security-wise but the DHS has recently moved to beef up its capabilities such as rolling out the Radiation Monitoring Program, which will use portable devices to scan incoming vehicles for any radiological material. Eventually, the DHS says, the program will be expanded to sea and airports.

But the borders, especially in the north, continue to be porous. In the north there is just one patrol for every 5.5 miles of border and that’s after the DHS tripled the number of guards, a move made possible largely by cannibalizing staffing levels in the south.

The DHS also beefed up its visa entry program by going to a special biometric procedure that takes fingerprints of all visitors. Unfortunately, the program exempts citizens from 27 countries, which means people like British citizen Richard Reed, the infamous “shoe bomber," would be automatically exempt.

“What we haven’t achieved yet is what I call ‘Google search at the border,’” said Pena. “Which is, you put in a person’s name, passport number, scan their photograph and that information is then compared against our terrorist database,” he said. "We just don’t have that in place.”

The DHS also merged the “legacy” functions of former Customs and INS agents into a single job and gave them a new title -- Customs and Border Protection officer -- and a new slogan: “One face at the border.”

A single terrorist incident at a U.S. seaport could effectively cripple the U.S. economy for months, say security experts. Increasingly, fewer major seaports handle more of the nation’s trade. A few well-placed attacks on the main channels along the Gulf Coast, and the nation would lose its ability to move refined oil in and out of the country.

Worse, most ports didn’t even have a coordinated security plan based on a formal vulnerability assessment until this January, the legally mandated deadline for getting security plans into the hands of the Coast Guard.

The DHS has offered up to help the largest ports complete vulnerability studies with cash grants and offered hundreds of millions across the board to ports large and small to help increase security. It’s still just a drop in the bucket, according to the American Association of Port Authorities, which estimates it would take $2 billion to adequately bolster the nation’s seaports.

Seven million cargo containers arrive at U.S. ports each year and yet only a fraction of those are screened or searched in any way. Experts say these containers, which can be leased for as little as $1,500 in a foreign country, loaded with whatever and shipped into a U.S. port with virtually no oversight, remain a huge risk for importation of biological or radiological weapons. To help thwart some of that risk, the DHS has put about 100 inspectors into ports overseas to try to catch illegal materials before they set sail for America. In addition, cargo manifests are required to be sent to the Coast Guard 48 hours before arriving in a U.S. port.

The nation’s power plants, water systems, financial and computer networks, dams and electrical grid all make up a complex security matrix that falls under the heading of “critical infrastructure.” There are tens of thousands of potential targets and most of them are in private hands, making any kind of government security oversight dicey.

The private sector is leery of divulging specific weaknesses and entrusting those vulnerabilities to the safekeeping of the government. Companies fear that competitors may use such information against them if the government inadvertently releases the information.

To head off such concerns, the DHS announced last week that it is creating a voluntary vulnerability database for the nation’s infrastructure. Any information submitted would be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests to guarantee the safekeeping of such information.

Securing the nation’s infrastructure is expensive and for the most part, little has been done in this area beyond beefing up physical security, measures like making sure there are locks on all doors or adding additional chain link fences and instituting photo identification for entry into sensitive areas.

It's a matter of priorities, said the Cato Institute's Pena.  "We're really good at protecting 'things,'" he said.  "And we've probably done a reasonably good job at protecting the things we choose to protect. Now whether we've chosen to protect all the right things is another question."

The DHS, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, has made several high-profile announcements about projects it has instituted to help protect against the threat of bio-terrorism. Billions of dollars spread across a half-dozen programs with names like “Bio-Shield” and “Bio-Surveillance.”

But critics claim the effort is scattered at best, and redundant and inefficient at worst. Government studies have shown that hospitals in major cities wouldn’t be able to handle the immediate influx of victims in the event of a bio or chemical weapon attack.

“There has been inadequate connection between DHS and HHS to prepare for and respond to biological terrorism,” said George, of the ANSER Institute. “And public health considerations haven’t been adequately woven into all the different missions, objectives and goals of the department of homeland security,” George said.

All the biological programs, projects and initiatives “haven’t been adequately linked to pre-existing efforts throughout the country,” she said. “We need to infuse the entire system with better computer and other communication equipment and not just depending on environmental sensors or any one kind of data source. To depend on one source of data is just bad science and it’s bad management.”

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