(CNSNews.com) - In the three years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has launched an aggressive war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and created a huge government agency to secure the homeland. Recent polls indicate Americans feel safer as a result of those actions.
But as the third anniversary approaches Saturday, the country remains in the midst of a transition period in its terrorism fight, according to security experts. The 9/11 Commission's recommendations are still being debated in Congress and the Department of Homeland Security hasn't completely solved the communications barriers that existed before the 2001 attacks.
Despite the challenges ahead, most Americans feel safer today than three years ago, according to analysis of polling data by Karlyn H. Bowman, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. But there's also a catch: A majority polled also believe terrorists will again strike the United States.
Bowman cited three different polls taken in July and August, including ones from NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, CBS News and the Pew Research Center. A fourth poll, from the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, follows a similar trend.
The Annenberg survey, taken in August, revealed that 16 percent of respondents felt much safer, while 55 percent said they felt somewhat safer. Only 10 percent felt somewhat less safe and just 6 percent believed they were much less safe. Twelve percent cited no difference.
Although public opinion polls indicate an optimistic tone on the country's safety, security experts warned that terrorists haven't likely stop planning another attack. It took years for al Qaeda to execute the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, for instance.
The country's response to terrorism, according to James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, must stay focused on the future rather than the near term. He equated the strategy in the war on terror to the Cold War.
"Most of the things we've done [since 9/11] are looking more at the long term," Carafano said. "Those are the things that are really important, not how we do security at the Olympics or what we do in the next 10 minutes."
After the National Security Act reorganized the military and intelligence agencies in 1947, Carafano said it took about 10 years before the United States and its allies were able to effectively counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He said Americans need to think about the war on terror in similar terms.
Ultimately, however, defending the country against a terrorist attack might be impossible, said Charles V. Pena, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Pena said the United States might be safer today than three years ago, but he warned of the challenges ahead.
"In some respects by some measures, we are probably marginally safer than we were. If we are worried about a repeat 9/11 hijacking, we're better at airline passenger security," Pena said. "But we also have to be realistic. We live in an open society and we're a large country with a multitude of possible targets."
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