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A Question of Security: Is America Any Safer Since 9/11?
Sept. 11, 2007. For some people, it was just another Tuesday, filled with work or school, and no normal routines interrupted. For others, it served as a grim reminder of the day they lost a friend or relative to a senseless act of terrorism.
But for government officials and homeland-security experts, the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was yet another reminder of the single worst homeland security lapse in U.S. history.
So, the question remains: Six years -- and billions of security dollars -- later, are we any safer?
Certainly, the United States hasn't been attacked since 2001, but does that mean national-security safeguards are firmly in place and working efficiently?
Speaking outside City Hall on Sept. 20, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said that officials have disrupted terror cells, and are continually benefiting from gathering vital information about possible terror activities in the United States.
"As long as we move forward, we stay ahead of the enemies," he said.
Chertoff's address, however, focused heavily on Improvised Explosive Devices -- small, often homemade explosives more commonly known as IEDs. Although they seem to be the weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq, studying how they are made there could prevent a catastrophe that utilizes them here in Philadelphia.
"The threat of IEDs is going to be with us for a long time," said Chertoff, as he stood alongside Mayor John F. Street, Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. "We have to stay ahead of it."
After the formal event, Street said that "we get bomb threats on a regular basis." If hit, the city has a "huge communications issue we're trying to resolve," said the mayor. If a bomb went off inside the subway or tunnel system, there would be no way for first responders to communicate. In his view, to fix it would take an additional $30 million in funding from the Department of Homeland Security, which has already given the city $18 million.
Chertoff and city officials touted the new Technical Resource for Incident Prevention, or TRIPwire initiative, which will link federal, state and local bomb-prevention experts, and allow the police and first responders to quickly get information about IEDs.
A day later, homeland-security officials conducted an eight-hour training session on IEDs with first responders from around the area.
The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks naturally revives questions about the state of national security, especially in the media, and it made September a busy month for local groups and think-tanks that have held forums and sponsored lectures to better gauge the safety of the country.
In a Sept. 24 talk to members of the Global Interdependence Center, Stephen E. Flynn, the former advisor on homeland security for the U.S. Commission on National Security, argued that "we are less safe."
Delivering his remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Flynn said that the United States treats homeland security as an "away-game problem" by trying to fight terrorists overseas so as not to fight them here.
"We now have insight in the last six years that [the strategy's] not doing all that well," he claimed.
The missing component to this type of plan, he said, is assistance from citizens in the overall battle against terror.
"For six years, Washington has been fueling our threat of vulnerability without giving us anything to do," he said.
A former Coast Guard officer, Flynn also discussed how he has "little confidence in the security" of America's maritime transit system -- pivotal for a city like Philadelphia, which has a substantial port.
"Virtually all the people who own or operate these [maritime] systems are not on our shores," he said.
In his view, an attack on a U.S. port would, of course, be disastrous, but it would pale in comparison to the economic impact of heightened port security, which could grind the flow of inbound traffic to a halt.
Israel's Impact on U.S. Safety
Has the close relationship between the United States and Israel affected homeland security?
Some pundits also have argued that American ties with Israel have angered Islamists, making them more eager to attack on American soil. Others, like retired Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger, say that Israel is a tactical friend in an unfriendly neighborhood, ultimately keeping America safe.
Having Israel in the Middle East is like America deploying its "largest aircraft carrier, which can never be sunk and is battle tested," Ettinger said during a Sept. 25 talk at the Jewish Community Services Building, sponsored by the Center for Israel & Overseas of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"Israel extends the capabilities of the U.S. by projecting the power of defense in a very critical area," he noted after the event, adding that the United States uses Israeli docking ports and landing strips, thus increasing its own capabilities.
American soldiers also train in Israel on counterterrorism efforts, like detecting and diffusing IEDs, he added. "It has spared many American lives and saved much American expenditure."
He even said that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might have been averted if there were a country like Israel in the Persian Gulf to help keep those regimes under control.
While some may have seen the recent Israeli operation over Syrian airspace strictly as a way for the Jewish state to make itself safer from an unfriendly neighbor, Ettinger believes the attack -- which may have been against nuclear capabilities -- will advance the security of the United States as well.
"It was a blow to the 'axis' of Syria, Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah," he affirmed.
Focus on Education
While many vividly recall the Sept. 11 attacks, some students may have been too young to comprehend the gravity of that day's events.
Most freshman in high school are 14 years old, meaning that they were just 8 at the time of the attacks. While they have subsequently learned about 9/11 in school, leaders at the Foreign Policy Research Institute made it a point to discuss national-security issues with students on the sixth anniversary of the attacks.
FPRI set up two live Webcasts, which allowed students from 50 schools across the country to ask questions of a panel of experts via their computer screens.
FPRI president Harvey Sicherman told the cyber-audience -- as well as students in attendance at the FPRI offices in Center City -- that the Bush-administration's policy of attacking terrorists where they live, rather than waiting for them to attack us, makes military sense.
"It's a sound military tactic because these groups are not that large, and when you're dealing with a group that's a couple hundred people trying to strike you and they have to spend their days trying to survive your attacks, they don't have too much left over to try to get at you," he said.
But has the defensive side of homeland security gotten any stronger?
"A lot of effort has been devoted since then, although not as effectively as we may like it," acknowledged Sicherman, who later attested that "there is no doubt that we have achieved many successes in interrupting and intercepting operations, both here and in Europe."
Stephen Gale, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the students that the government is indeed spending money -- just in the wrong places, like $18 billion per year on protecting airports.
"What do you think is the probability that there's going to be that kind of hijacking again?
"Zero," he said.
"On the other hand," he continued, "we go to a general aviation airport [that houses] private planes, and there's lots of them of all sizes, [and] there's no systematic sense of security there. There's no one looking at those planes. They could be loaded up with explosives, and no one would even know it."
During the second Webcast, FPRI senior fellow Lawrence Husick told the student audience about how procedures, like not allowing liquids on planes up to three ounces, are reactive, rather than preventative, measures.
"These procedures are effective at reassuring us that our government is doing something, because in the view of most experts, the likelihood of a direct hijack of a commercial passenger aircraft by Al Qaeda is very low," he explained.
"In fact, there are many other targets that we have not identified that we have not protected."
Attack on the Horizon
So what is the likelihood of another terrorist attack on these shores?
"The consensus among government experts, private experts -- just about anyone who has looked at the problem of Islamist terrorism -- is that the likelihood of another attack on the United States is 100 percent," he stated.
Theorizing about the next potential attack, Husick revealed to the young audience that since Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden announced shortly after Sept. 11 that he wanted to attack the "joints" of the U.S. economy, he believed that it might be an attack on something like the nation's energy or transportation infrastructure.
"It'll be more like something that attacks our economy," he said, "than something intended to kill a bunch of people."