INSIGHT: US safer since 9/11 but threat remains

11 September 2008 12:51  [Source: ICIS news]

US security chief says US safer but still threatenedBy Joe Kamalick

 

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Seven years after the 11 September terrorist attacks, the US has implemented broad preventive measures against further assaults but the nation’s top security official warns that the threat is evolving and will continue for years.

 

The country “is no doubt safer than it was on 9/11”, said Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff  speaking with reporters about the anniversary of the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon in Washington.

 

He cited widespread defensive improvements in aviation, border protection, immigration controls and “dramatic enhancements” in intelligence cooperation with other nations as “positive developments that suggest we are safer now than seven years ago”.

 

“We have greatly increased our ability to block dangerous people and things from entering the US, we have pushed our defensive perimeters to overseas, and we have put in place two dozen levels of security in aviation,” he said.

 

“We denied al-Qaeda their safe haven in Afghanistan and we have hit terrorists on almost every continent," he said.  “Much of al-Qaeda’s leadership has been eliminated and they are losing in Iraq because they have been rejected by the Iraqis.”

 

“They have suffered a loss of reputation because of their attacks on innocent Muslims,” Chertoff said of the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the atrocities on 9/11.

 

“All of these are positive developments that suggest we are safer than we were on 9/11 and this is why the enemy has not succeeded in launching another attack in the US since 9/11 - but not because they haven’t been trying,” he said.

 

However, Chertoff added, “the fact that we are safer does not mean that the job is done, and if we even think we’re done, we’d be making a grave mistake”.

 

He said that despite being defeated and run out of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has gained “breathing space” in neighbouring Pakistan and in North Africa “where they continue recruiting and training and especially the recruiting of European sympathisers” who might more easily infiltrate US and other target countries’ security.

 

In addition to offensive and defensive measures against the terrorist threat, Chertoff said “we have to strike at the root cause of terrorism and challenge the ideas underpinning terrorism”.

 

“We do this by promoting the rule of law, democracy and literacy and by allowing people in the Middle East and elsewhere to articulate an alternative view of Islam,” he said.

 

Asked what terrorism threat gives him sleepless nights, Chertoff said “weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons”.

 

He said that biological weapons posed a high threat level because they could be easily concealed, and the technology to produce them was more readily implemented than that for nuclear weaponry, for example.

 

“A biological weapon could be contained in a small vial, or an infected person could simply slip into the country,” he said. “The key is early detection and rapid response, and we have placed new biological detection equipment all around the country.”

 

“We in the US have difficulty in sustaining interest in long-term commitments,” he said, adding that “taking additional steps to protect our nation against terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction will require exactly that kind of long-term investment and dedication”.

 

“I worry that we don’t have that sustained commitment,” he said.

 

Chertoff said he already had seen indications among academics and others who suggest that federal officials had overblown the terrorist threat, what he called “a September 10th mindset”.

 

“We face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat and we will be facing that threat for years to come and we must evolve as well to meet it,” he said. “This will be a long struggle.”

 

Although he cautioned against complacency, Chertoff also warned against going too far in the other extreme with hysteria-based policy decisions.

 

Citing work his department had done with industry to beef-up security at thousands of US chemical facilities, refineries and other critical manufacturing and infrastructure sites, he said that the fact that the country had been spared any further terrorist action in seven years is evidence that precautions are working.

 

Asked about legislation pending in Congress that would broaden federal control over existing anti-terrorism security requirements at chemical facilities and other high-risk plants, Chertoff said “it would be unwise to have a circumstance where people sitting in Washington tell everybody how to do it, where to place guards at every particular plant”.

 

“I think that would not only stifle industry but it also would be the least effective way of securing these facilities against terrorist attack,” he said.

 

Referring to the existing Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) now being implemented by his department and the US chemicals sector, Chertoff said: “I think the model we have used, which is what Congress previously authorised, is one where we set performance standards and say, ‘here’s the kind of threat you have to protect against’.”

 

“You have to give us your security plan, your measures, you have to test it, and if we’re satisfied that you have accomplished what you have to accomplish, then we’ll leave it to you to figure out the details,” he said, referring to the risk- and performance-based chemical facility security regulations.

 

“Obviously, if someone doesn’t meet the standards, we can punish and we have the capability to do that,” he added.

 

“But I think the model we have now is a good model, and before major changes are made there ought to be a really close look at how it’s working,” he said.

 

Chertoff is near the end of his tenure as head of the Department of Homeland Security. He will leave the position in January 2009 when a new US administration takes office.

 

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By: Joe Kamalick
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