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  Daily Briefing  
September 11, 2003

Two years later, difficult questions remain

By David Hess, CongressDaily

Two years after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the federal government is struggling both to define its mission for sheltering the homeland and to organize itself to provide a broad antiterrorist shield, a House committee was told Wednesday.

Key investigators of what went wrong on Sept. 11, 2001, said that measurable progress has been made in protecting some prime terrorist targets. But they also told the House Homeland Security Committee that the nation remains vulnerable to many threats and still lacks adequate mechanisms to detect and deter the kinds of fanatical terrorist acts that destroyed the WTC and part of the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people.

The testimony came during a hearing billed as a progress report from Eleanor Hill, staff director of the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry for Sept. 11, and former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, chairman of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Homeland Security ranking member Jim Turner, D-Texas, set the tone of the hearing when he said: "We have been told we are safer than we were on September 11th, 200l. But that is not the test we must pass. The question before us is, 'Are we as safe as we must be to protect the American people?'"

Without despairing, the crux of the two experts' testimony was that we are not.

But there does appear to be movement in the right direction, they said, even as they identified some of the stumbles and obstacles to achieving a more secure country.

For one thing, Hill said, there is still some dispute over the creation of a core intelligence collection and analysis agency that would "fuse" all information gleaned by every federal intelligence-gathering organization and sort it out.

"Access to raw data [from various spy shops] is still a problem," she said.

That sparked an irritated response from Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., who pointedly reminded his colleagues the original legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security called for such an "information fusion" agency.

"We want that mandated and implemented, and we're somewhat troubled that it isn't being done," said Cox, in a warning shot to the CIA and FBI, which have been balky about ceding pieces of their counter-intelligence turf.

In an animated summation of the way he sees the problem, Gilmore declaimed: "Complete security is not possible against a stealth terrorist attack, but a good national strategy can reduce that risk, and direct our resources to the correct priorities."

The government will waste a lot of money without such a strategy, he said. "Everything is vulnerable in a free society," he went on, "and we must have a frank dialogue with the American people that all risk can't be eliminated."

He noted that seaports, chemical and nuclear plants, railroads and bridges all pose attractive targets for terrorists, but that all cannot possibly be safeguarded. That is why Congress and the president, he said, must analyze the threats, set priorities for protecting key vulnerabilities, and devise a strategy—in conjunction with states and cities—for carrying it out. At the same time, President Bush Wednesday called on Congress to vastly expand law enforcement's ability to combat terrorism at home.

Speaking to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., Bush urged Congress to act quickly to pass legislation allowing law enforcement officials to obtain administrative subpoenas rather than have to go through the courts; deny bail to suspected terrorists; and apply the death penalty to all terrorist actions that cause death.

Bush said the expanded authorities are "fully consistent with the U.S. Constitution," even as civil libertarians continue to protest the USA PATRIOT Act, enacted shortly after the attacks.

Gilmore strongly cautioned the congressional committee to be wary of security measures that threaten civil liberties.

"Our traditional values of liberty cannot be balanced against or traded off for security," he said. "We must be cautious that those responsible for security do not simply redefine away our freedoms in the name of security. It is preparedness that must be defined, not our definition of freedom that has already gained its meaning from the blood of American patriots, including those that died on Sept. 11, 2001."

Lisa Caruso contributed to this report.

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