Americans 'Safer But Not Less Vulnerable' Since 9/11

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - While government officials tout their enhanced level of preparedness to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks, security experts from the private sector are less than optimistic about the vulnerabilities that Americans face two years after the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute Sept. 2 that the U.S. government is getting progressively better at identifying and addressing potential terrorist threats.

"We can never guarantee that we are free from the possibility of terrorist attack, but we can say this, we are more secure and better prepared than we were two years ago," Ridge said. "Each and every single day we rise to a new level of readiness and response, now the highest level of protection this nation has ever known."

Numerous security experts contacted by agree with Ridge that the country is safer than on 9/11. But they question both necessity of many of the steps that are being taken and whether or not other, more effective measures should be considered.

"Are we safer? I think we're absolutely safer," said Hank Chase, director of homeland security programs for ITS Corporation, a federal services contractor. "Are we less vulnerable? No.

"We're still very, very 'soft,' if you don't work in a government building or work on a military installation, you're probably just as vulnerable as you were on September 10th two years ago," Chase elaborated. "As you go to a restaurant or maybe to a mall or a ballgame, look around. In the lion's share of those establishments, there's no security."

Some security professionals believe much of the money ostensibly being spent on "homeland security" has been wasted.

"We are a little bit safer, but not as safe as we should be considering the amount of money and resources the federal government is pouring into aviation security," said Brian Darling, spokesman for the Airline Pilots Security Alliance (APSA).

"The budget for the Department of Homeland Security, dedicated to aviation security, is $4.5 billion and it is clear to me that that $4.5 billion is not being used effectively," Darling said.

APSA was created to promote the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) or "armed pilot" program. The organization, composed of pilots from all major airlines, many with military and law enforcement experience, believes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is arming too few pilots, too slowly.

Dr. Neil Livingstone is chairman and CEO of Global Options, LLC, which describes itself as "a corporate CIA, Defense Department, Justice Department and FBI, all rolled into one." He shares Darling's assessment.

"The United States is certainly safer than it was prior to 9/11, but that doesn't mean that we've closed all of the loopholes or fixed all of the vulnerabilities that we have and we've also wasted, probably, a lot of money on some of the things that we've done," Livingstone said, citing the massive placement of federal screeners at U.S. airports and comparing that to implementation of the armed pilots program.

"We've spent billions of dollars upgrading security in our airports to prevent hijackings of airplanes," Livingstone explained. "Yet, we probably could have done that much more cheaply. For about $400 a plane, we could have put a gun in the cockpit and that probably would have taken care of the problem."

Some security decisions made for political, not practical reasons

Andrew Thomas, professor of international business at the University of Akron and author of Aviation Insecurity: The New Challenges of Air Travel, rated U.S. air security at a "2" on a scale of one to ten prior to 9/11, and said Friday that it is now averaging a "6."

"The problem is that the gap between '6' and, say, '9' or '10,' which is perfect or the best security you're going to get, is still too large, and the issue is, what are we doing to close that gap," Thomas said. "My concern is that government doesn't have the capacity, given its current strategic vision, to close that gap."

Much of what has been done, Thomas fears, falls into the category of "cosmetic" measures.

"We've spent billions of dollars, hurt the industries that we're trying to protect, inconvenienced the stakeholders and ultimately still allowed that vulnerability to persist," Thomas said. However, he defended TSA as an agency that has, albeit poorly in his opinion, for the most part only done what it was told.

"It was Congress and the president, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, who gave us the mandates that TSA was burdened with," Thomas noted.

"So TSA is actually only executing the plan that was put in place by our elected leaders so that the political leaders could stand up the next time they come up for election and point to the TSA ... and say, 'Look what all we've done,'" Thomas said.

Livingstone believes many of the "foolish projects" funded in the name of preventing terrorism were predictable.

"The American public, after 9/11, expected their government to do something to make them safer," Livingstone explained, noting that 9/11 was the first attack on the U.S. mainland since the British invasion during the War of 1812.

"It traumatized the American public and there was a need by the administration and by members of Congress and governors and local officials to show that they had taken some type of meaningful action," Livingstone said. "The problem is that the further we got away from 9/11, the more we went back to business as usual."

As an example Livingstone cited one federal law that requires a certain government security agency to buy one specific type of security device from manufacturer "B" for every similar device it purchases from manufacturer "A," even though manufacturer "A's" device is accepted by the security industry as the notably better of the two.

"As this money goes out around the country to universities and to consultants and to local law enforcement and first responders, there are hundreds of millions of dollars that are being misspent," Livingstone added. "Congress, in its usual style, has seen it as a great big pork barrel."

Experts believe more money needed to research high-tech terrorism prevention

To support his contention that federal anti-terrorism dollars are being misspent, Chase notes the relatively small amount allocated for finding new, high-tech preventive measures.

"In the Homeland Security budget, as it was originally crafted, I think it was less than one and a half percent of the budget was going for research and development," Chase said, adding that some members of Congress have proposed legislation to increase that percentage.

Livingstone supports research into new technologies, as long as appropriate caution is used. He recalled, for example, that "facial recognition technology" was touted in the aftermath of 9/11 as a way to pick terrorists out of a crowd. It has since been proven less than reliable.

"There are a lot of technologies like that today that are very nascent and that they really aren't perfected, yet but we're already beginning to put them online," Livingstone said. "My view is the government should be putting a lot of money into research and development, but be very wary about trying to implement new technologies until they're proven."

War against terror must not be allowed to stay on U.S. soil

Chase hesitantly considered the possibilities of terrorism becoming as commonplace in the U.S. as it is in Israel.

"If there's a two-legged bomber in [a train] station or in a movie theatre or a coordinated attack with several at one time across the country, man-oh-man, our way of life is going to change," Chase predicted. "You better believe there's going to be an overreaction."

During his speech, Ridge made one point with which the experts contacted agreed.

"We are making progress, but make no mistake: Terrorists have lashed out in Iraq and elsewhere, not because we are failing, but because we are succeeding," Ridge said. "And these successes remind us why we fight: Because every single victory in a far-away land makes us safer here at home."

The two goals of homeland defense policy, Chase argued, should be to keep terrorists out of the country and to hunt them down wherever they operate outside the U.S.

"The war is going to be won on foreign soil," Chase said. "If we're fighting it here, like Israel is, we've lost. So go get 'em, and protect the border."

Livingstone concurred.

"We have a lot of vulnerabilities," Livingstone said," so we've got to win this war by carrying the war to the enemy."

While there is not much the average citizen can do to directly combat terrorism, Livingstone stresses that the standard advice from government officials to "remain vigilant" is not just rhetoric.

"The fact is that we have preempted attacks in this country over the past two years because someone has picked up the phone and called the FBI or the local law enforcement and said, 'You know, there's a suspicious individual here or something going on that seems suspicious to me,'" Livingstone explained.

"That's how we got some of the people that we've arrested," Livingstone added.

Livingstone also believes that, as soon as the public learned what happened on 9/11, there were situations that ordinary citizens may have been even better prepared to deal with than government officials.

"I think, quite frankly speaking, that passengers would have revolted if anyone tried to hijack a plane, they probably would have lynched the hijackers," Livingstone said. "It might have been messy and bloody, but I don't think they would have gotten another plane."

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