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
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.