WASHINGTON - When public officials are asked how the nation is safer from terrorist attack than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, they usually reply in generalities.
But when they are talking to the industry representatives they depend on to help them get the tools to defend against terrorists, they are more forthcoming.
Thus it was at a conference in Washington this week between information specialists and government officials involved in homeland security that more details came out about what is being done to guard America.
The often-criticized Immigration and Naturalization Service, which “retired'' its flag on Friday afternoon as it was merged into the new Department of Homeland Security, is now requiring universities to let them know if a foreign student has not been seen in class for two days.
The idea, said acting deputy commissioner Mike Becraft, is that foreign students who come into the United States and then drop out of school will be found and investigated. Some of the 9/11 hijackers got into the country on student visas and then melted into obscurity as they plotted their crimes.
The Customs Service, which inspects 500 million people a year and 19 million trucks, vessels, and rail cars coming across U.S. borders, now has agreements with 18 of the 20 biggest ports in the world to inspect containers before they are loaded onto ships. And by the end of the year, said Jayson Ahern, assistant commissioner of the office of field operations, all Customs inspectors will have radiation detectors, to check, for example, whether someone is trying to bring in a nuclear device.
Ultimately, the Customs Service, also becoming part of the new Department of Homeland Security, hopes through its container-security initiative to develop new containers that will be equipped with “smart'' technology to make them secure.
With many of the nation's critical infrastructure, such as bridges, nuclear power plants, and oil refineries in private control, government officials say unspecific security measures, such as changing security routines, remote sensors, and laser detectors, have made such “assets'' more secure.
Michael Byrne, former director of the New York office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had to deal with the World Trade Center disaster, now is senior director for response and recovery in the new homeland security department. He said that new technology is critical to quick emergency response.
Rose Parkes, chief information officer for FEMA, said that 9/11 was a wake-up call for improving coordination between the states and the federal government. There now are plans in major cities, for example, to transport urban search-and-rescue teams, provide flight clearances, and remove debris, whether the disaster is manmade or natural.
FEMA has a Web site, www.disasterhelp.gov, which is a portal for emergency information. On Thursday, for example, it reported that the threat level had been lowered from orange (high) to yellow (elevated).
William Jeffrey, in charge of research and development for Bush's Homeland Security Council, said that while the nation can take pride in what has been accomplished since 9/11, “the challenges are great, and the range of hazards presented may not even be known.”
Even though local and state governments have not received homeland-security money yet, training already has improved, he said.
A lot of what needs to be done can be accomplished by common sense, he added, such as having batteries that can be swapped from one device to another.
Technology developed for the battlefield is being integrated into homeland security at a faster pace, Mr. Jeffrey said, adding that the most profitable technology is for equipment that can be used in a natural disaster as well as a terrorist incident. He cited the ability to connect satellite phones, walkie-talkies, and cell phones for conference calls during a major event.
Although only 4,000 of the 450,000 people targeted for smallpox vaccinations have been vaccinated, there is general praise for the program for not ordering all Americans to get the vaccine but having emergency personnel be ready to get it. The good news about the vaccine is that it can be given shortly after exposure and still prevent the disease or minimize its symptoms.
Government officials tend to say they take the threat of another terrorist attack seriously. Penrose Albright, assistant director of homeland and national security for the Office of Homeland Security, said his family has a plan on where to meet and he keeps a bag packed in his trunk. But, he said, “I don't have any duct tape.”38.89037 -77.03196