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WASHINGTON — We are safer, but not safe enough.
In the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has taken giant steps to protect the nation from terrorists, spending eye-popping sums to smarten up the federal bureaucracy, hunt down enemies, strengthen airline security, secure U.S. borders, reshape America's image and more. Still, the effort remains a work in progress, and in some cases a work stalled.
Whole alphabets of acronyms have been born and died in pursuit of homeland security, a phrase that wasn't even used much before 9/11.
Hello, TSA, DNI, DHS, NCTC, CVE, NSI and ICE. Goodbye, TTIC, INS and more.
How quaint that travelers used to be asked a few questions about whether they'd packed their own bags. Now, people routinely strip off their belts and shoes, dump their gels in small plastic bags, power up their laptops to prove they aren't bombs and submit to full body scans and pat downs once reserved for suspected criminals.
We have gone from "Let's roll" to "Don't touch my junk."
The bipartisan Sept. 11 Commission in 2004 laid out a 585-page road map to create an America that is "safer, stronger, wiser."
Many of the commission's recommendations are now reality. But in some cases, results haven't lived up to expectations. Other proposals are just that, ideas awaiting action.
"What I've come to appreciate is there's no magic wand on some of these things," says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who says that progress overall has been significant.
But remember how some of the police and firefighters who rushed to the twin towers in New York couldn't talk to one other because their radios weren't in sync? There's still no nationwide communications network for disasters, as the commission envisioned, although individual cities have made progress.
It's understandable if you've never heard of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created to ensure that the government doesn't go overboard with new terrorism-fighting powers bestowed by the Patriot Act and other counterterrorism measures. The board has no members, no staff, no office.
Despite a top-to-bottom reorganization of the country's intelligence superstructure, it's still a challenge for analysts to tease out the critical clues needed to prevent an attack.
On Christmas Day 2009, lots of people in government had information about a Nigerian man whose behavior was raising red flags. But because no one had pieced all the information together, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to stroll on to a plane headed for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. Only his failure to detonate the explosives properly saved the people on that plane.
Lee Hamilton, a co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, says it's probably a combination of hard work and good luck that's kept the U.S. from experiencing another all-out terrorist attack. But he worries that success is breeding complacency.
"The lack of urgency concerns me," Hamilton says. "The likelihood is that sometime in the future, we will be attacked again."
A look at some of the 9/11 commission's recommendations, and the results:
RECOMMENDATION: Tighter security checks on all airline passengers. The Transportation Security Administration and Congress "must give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers."
RESULT: There have been awkward moments as the government searches for a system that will protect passengers without infuriating them: A gravely ill 95-year-old woman had to remove her wet diaper before she could get through security in Florida in June. Video of a 6-year-old girl getting frisked in Louisiana in March went viral. "Don't touch my junk," became a national rallying cry.
The TSA was created soon after the attacks, underscoring the priority placed on securing the sky. Since then, the U.S. has poured $50 billion into aviation security. The commission suggested specific actions for the agency: check travelers against terrorist watch lists and screen every passenger who warrants extra security for explosives. Both are now being done. But airport security procedures continue to evolve as the threat mutates. Those intrusive pat-downs began after Abdulmutallab boarded that flight for Detroit.
RECOMMENDATION: "We recommend the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center. ... The current position of Director of Central Intelligence should be replaced by a National Intelligence Director."
RESULT: The government has turned its intelligence-sharing policies nearly upside down as it tries to make it easier to manage and share all the rushing streams of information that flow through 15 agencies. There's a new National Counterterrorism Center; its mission is to bring together intelligence and analysts from across the government. There's a new director of national intelligence, a distinct agency, to coordinate it all. Overall, the intelligence budget has more than doubled since Sept. 11.
But Hamilton says "it's not clear that the DNI is the driving force for intelligence community integration that the commission envisioned."
The vision of a strong director supreme over all the intelligence agencies has yet to be fully realized in large part because of the way the job is structured, with lots of responsibility but not much authority. In a town where dollars equal clout, the intelligence director has no ability to redirect, cut off or increase spending at the different agencies.
The position, sometimes derided as the "convener-in-chief," is fast becoming one of the most thankless jobs in Washington. Three directors have come and gone since the job was created in 2005. Each was engaged in turf battles with the CIA and the National Security Council.
Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who held the job from 2009 to 2010, complained in a recent address that the White House had undermined his authority.
"They sided enough with the CIA in ways that were public enough that it undercut my position," Blair said.
Asked with whom the president would side among current officials at the DNI, CIA and Pentagon, Blair said the White House would do the coordinating. He then added, "My experience is that the White House isn't a very good place to coordinate intelligence, much less to integrate it."
The current director, retired three-star Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, is said to be well thought of by the White House, partly because he is openly deferential to the CIA.
After the 9/11 attacks, the government did work to combine its terrorist watchlists. Now even a beat cop in Seattle can check to see if the person pulled over for speeding is a known or suspected terrorist.
There are some worries that all this broad sharing of information has made it too easy for national secrets to leak. Think WikiLeaks.
RECOMMENDATION: Creation of a nationwide radio network to allow different public safety agencies to communicate with one another during disasters. "Congress should support pending legislation which provides for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes."
RESULT: Still no network, legislation still pending.
As fires raged at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, firefighters, police and other emergency personnel couldn't effectively communicate with one another because of their archaic and incompatible radios.
To fix the problem, the commission recommended creating a network that would allow different public safety agencies to talk to each other during disasters, from forest fires to terrorist attacks.
But lawmakers, public safety officials and telecommunications companies have spent years haggling over the best way to build the system, which would cost billions to construct and operate. Legislation backed by the Obama administration would devote high-quality radio spectrum to a nationwide wireless public safety network, and raise the money to pay for it by auctioning other airwaves to spectrum-hungry wireless companies.
Even if a law is enacted this year, setting up the network would take time. "Congress must not approach this urgent matter at a leisurely pace, because quite literally lives are at stake," Hamilton and commission co-chairman Tom Kean said in a June letter to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
RECOMMENDATION: "There should be a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to the guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties."
RESULT: Within weeks of the attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act, giving the government powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. That generated worries that personal and civil liberties would be overrun.
The five-person Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was established and operated for a few years. But since 2008 it has been dormant. President Barack Obama nominated two people to serve, but they have not been confirmed by the Senate.
RECOMMENDATION: "Afghanistan must not again become a sanctuary for international crime and terrorism." The commission called for a "long-term commitment to a secure and stable Afghanistan."
RESULT: And how: The U.S. commitment has been long term, both in dollars and military might. But Afghanistan is far from secure. Afghan civilian deaths remain alarmingly high. President Hamid Karzai's corruption-riddled government has little power outside of Kabul. As Obama seeks to pull out combat troops over the next three years, the government's hand may weaken further. Al-Qaida, however, has had to relocate much of its operational planning to Pakistan and Yemen, where weak governments leave terrorists an opening.
RECOMMENDATION: "The United States should support Pakistan's government in its struggle against extremists with a comprehensive effort that extends from military aid to support for better education, so long as Pakistan's leaders remain willing to make difficult choices of their own."
RESULT: Pakistan has embraced democracy, after years under the military-led regime of Pervez Musharraf. Increased U.S. aid has helped shore up the weak democratic government and deliver some counterterrorism successes.
Yet all of Washington's money and support haven't severed links between militants and Pakistan's army and intelligence services. The Taliban can cross into Afghanistan freely to fight U.S. forces, and Pakistanis harbor extremely negative opinions of the U.S.
Relations between U.S. and Pakistani authorities have been consistently difficult. The U.S. discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in a military town near Pakistan's capital in May only deepened the mutual mistrust and tension. Pakistani officials were furious that the raid was carried out without any warning to authorities in Islamabad, and that has jeopardized cooperation in the fight against al-Qaida. The U.S. has provided about $20 billion in assistance to Pakistan since 9/11, and many Americans are questioning the wisdom of giving more.
The country's direction is very unpredictable.
RECOMMENDATION: "The problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship must be confronted, openly."
RESULT: The Saudi government has fought al-Qaida on its own turf and proved a sturdy ally of the U.S. against Iran, yet has struggled to stem the flow of support for groups hostile to the United States. The two countries also haven't seen eye to eye on the wave of protests in North Africa and the Middle East. The commission's call for a "shared commitment to political and economic reform" is unfulfilled.
RECOMMENDATION: A new approach to the Muslim world, one less tolerant of undemocratic governments. "One of the lessons of the long Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most repressive and brutal governments were too often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America's stature and interests."
RESULT: The Obama administration has seized on the anti-government uprisings of the Arab spring to reposition U.S. foreign policy, moving away from support for strongmen such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and more toward democratic reforms and respect for human rights. The administration hopes that new democracies in the region will offer frustrated young men greater dignity and new economic opportunities, leaving them less vulnerable to the appeal of extremism. But efforts to re-establish the U.S. as a moral leader around the globe have been hindered somewhat by the stalled U.S.-led peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians, high civilian death rates in Afghanistan and Obama's failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay as he promised.
RECOMMENDATION: "The United States should engage other nations in developing a comprehensive coalition strategy against Islamist terrorism."
RESULT: Bush got strong backing from much of the world after 9/11, but that unity splintered when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Still, countries are sharing more intelligence and working together to combat terrorist financing. No government has permitted al-Qaida to operate freely within its borders. Obama's election ushered in a new spirit of cooperation among countries which had often complained of U.S. heavy-handedness and unilateralism under Bush.
RECOMMENDATION: "Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security."
RESULT: When the Sept. 11 commission issued its report, 88 congressional committees, subcommittees and caucuses claimed at least some jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.
The commission called the oversight system splintered, dysfunctional, an impediment to improving national security. It also was keenly aware of how hard it is to pry even one inch of turf away from a power-hungry member of Congress, warning presciently that "few things are more difficult to change in Washington than congressional committee jurisdiction and prerogatives."
By 2011, the number of congressional panels claiming jurisdiction had risen to 108. In 2009 alone, the department calculated it spent a collective 66 work years responding to questions from Congress.
"We are constantly briefing staff, appearing at hearings, preparing reports, responding to inquiries," says Napolitano. "It is a problem." And the problem goes way beyond the hassle of answering to lots of congressional chieftains. Hamilton warns: "When everyone has oversight, nobody has oversight."