Americans Ask, 'Are we Safer Today?'

The release of a videotape with a message from Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is raising serious questions about homeland security. As the nation prepares to mark the 6th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, many Americans still fear for their safety. Clark Kent Ervin, the first Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, discusses whether those fears are legitimate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Later in the program, we're going to hear two very different stories about the battle for gay rights in America. That's later.

But first, we're going to spend sometime talking about national security today and during the rest of the week. Tomorrow, of course, marks six years since the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

Al-Qaida has taken note of the anniversary with a new tape-recorded message from terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. While American forces have been searching for bin Laden and his followers abroad, here at home, the Department of Homeland Security was created to take over the task of making the country safer. But many critics question whether the department is fulfilling that mission.

Joining us to talk about that is Clark Kent Ervin. He was the first inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, and he currently serves as the director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute. He's here with us in the studio. Welcome.

Mr. CLARK KENT ERVIN (Director, Homeland Security Initiative, Aspen Institute): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: First, let me get your impressions of that latest communication by bin Laden. Most experts seem to view it as authentic and fairly recent - it makes reference to recent events. What do you think he's trying to tell us?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, I think he's trying to tell us that he's there, that he's still there all these many years after 9/11, that he continues to pose a threat to the United States. You know, this is the first time we've actually seen bin Laden since October of 2004, so almost three years. And he is living, breathing confirmation of what the NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus view of our intelligence agencies said a couple of months ago, namely, that al-Qaida central - bin Laden himself - and his top deputies - are back in business, stronger than at any time since 9/11, perhaps even stronger than before 9/11, that they're determined to strike the homeland again, and they perhaps may already have spirited their operatives into the country for that purpose.

MARTIN: Well, why do you get that he is stronger than ever, that his forces are stronger than ever from that tape, just for the fact that he has escaped death?

Mr. ERVIN: Right. A couple of things, one, our intelligence community says that. And, of course, it's not in their interest, I would argue, to say otherwise if otherwise were the case, point one.

Two, there's no question but that the last five years or so we have focused the bulk of our attention and our resources on Iraq, and that has allowed, as the intelligence community confirms, al-Qaida to regroup in Pakistan.

Furthermore, the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf has had this on-again, off-again relationship with al-Qaida. And the upshot has been that they have essentially taken a hands-off position and allowed al-Qaida free reign there. And so for all those reasons, al-Qaida is back in business.

MARTIN: I think that leads us to the core question is, do you think that the U.S. is safer than it was before September 11th or not?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, yes. The country is safer than before 9/11. Any objective observer would have to say yes to that question. But that's not the only question, and I think in the scheme of things it's not the most important question. The most important questions are, are we as safe as we can be? Are we as safe as we need to be? Are we as safe as we think we are? And the answer to all those questions, sadly for the country, is no.

MARTIN: And what are the country's greatest points of vulnerability, in your view?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, it's difficult, really, to come up with a small number, but if I have to pick three just arbitrarily, I'd say, first of all, our seaports. You know, most experts agree that the number one threat facing the country is the threat of nuclear terrorism. And the likeliest way, most experts agree, for a nuclear weapon to be smuggled into this country would be through one of the 11 to 12 million cargo containers that come into one of our 361 seaports every year.

We're inspecting only about 6 percent of those containers or screening them for radiation, meaning, of course, that we don't know anything about the other 94 percent. And 94 percent's a big percentage. With regard to the 6 percent, it's really arbitrary the 6 percent we choose. And the nuclear detection technology that we have isn't widely deployed and doesn't work very well. So for all those reasons, that's a major threat. And the loss of life, the injury and economic damage, obviously, from a nuclear weapon would make 9/11 pale in comparison, point one.

Point two, I'd say our land boarders. We all know that illegal immigration's a huge problem. It's possible as the 11 to 12 million illegal aliens in this country and the 500,000 or so who come every year attest, to sneak across our boarders illegally. With regard to legal immigration - and incidentally, all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers came legally, interestingly. It's a little harder than it was in 9/11 to come through our country through legal channels if you're a terrorist or if you're known to be a terrorist, but it's not as hard as it should be.

I have called - and I realized this is controversial - for ending the Visa Waiver Program. There are 27 countries, mostly in Europe, with which we have such good relations that their citizens can come to our country without a visa. That's a problem, because post-9/11, if you have to get a visa to enter the United States, you have to go through a very, very extensive process, which generally includes an interview. Now, obviously that's not foolproof, but the chances that you're - that you'll be caught if you're a terrorist by having to undergo an interview, much greater, obviously, than if you don't.

The third thing, I guess, I'd say is air cargo. Most people don't realize that about a fifth of the cargo that goes on planes in this country doesn't go on dedicated cargo planes - DHL, FedEx - but instead in the belly of passenger planes. So that means at one time or another, every American, probably - or most Americans, anyway - have taken a plane in the cargo hold of which is some cargo. Unlike luggage, cargo is almost never inspected, screened for bombs beforehand so…

MARTIN: Why not?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, a couple of things, really - opposition from the airline industry. They're making, right now, the very same argument that they made before 9/11 when they raised objections to 100 percent screening of luggage. It cost too much, slow down air travel. We haven't been attacked yet - thank God - because of the bomb in the cargo hold of the passenger plane, but we all know that if we were today, tomorrow we would go to a 100 percent inspection regime. That's the first problem.

And the second problem is - and they're related, of course - is really a lack of political will, a lack of urgency. And that's why marking the sixth anniversary, the seventh anniversary, every annual anniversary of 9/11 is so important.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, about American security today.

What I hear you say, Clark, is that there's just isn't a lack of urgency around this issue, that we're still too reactive in addressing security threats rather than being proactive. Now, why would that be? And as I think most people know, you know, billions of dollars have been spent on Homeland Security since 9/11. You can see it. And if you're in any major city you can see it. You can see security barriers, you can see all kinds of security steps that you have to undergo to go to go into a set of federal buildings, but you still feel that just we're not being - particularly when it comes to cargo, both with the sea borders and over the air. Why not?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, you know, I think the 9/11 Commission put it well a few years ago in their report when they said that we, the American government, failed to prevent 9/11 because of a failure of imagination. There were signs pointing to an attack, but because we hadn't ever been attacked before on our soil, a major terrorist attack like this from abroad, we - the American government just couldn't really believe that it was possible.

Now, obviously 9/11 has happened, so it's obviously possible to carry off a major attack like that. But, in a way, the fact that six years have passed without an attack is, in a way, a bad news story. And by that I mean it has allowed us - the American people, generally, the American government - to slip back into the pre-/911 complacency, subconsciously. It's not conscious. But subconsciously, the government, a lot of people think that we can't be attacked again, and that 9/11 was just a one-off thing that can never be repeated, and that's very, very dangerous thinking.

MARTIN: I think this might be a good opportunity to point out, again, that you're a former member of the Bush administration. You are a Republican. And I think members of your former administration would argue - well, they're still your administration, because they still sort of - but your former colleagues in the administration would say that the proof of the success of their strategy is that there has not been another attack.

Mr. ERVIN: Right. I hear that all the time. And I think that's really very, very dangerous thinking. It's seductive thinking. Certainly, we haven't been attacked, but I think too much can be made of that. We oughtn't to infer from that that we haven't been attacked because the United States government has been doing everything that it should have been doing since 9/11 to make us safer.

I think - and it's not just my thinking. I think the intelligence - and I know the intelligence confirms this. The reason we haven't been attacked is because al-Qaida, bin Laden, wants the next attack to be even more spectacular than the last one.

And if you have grandios plans like that, to kill not just 3,000 people - as was the case in 9/11 - but tens of thousands, millions of people, a nuclear weapon, then the harder it is to plan, the longer it takes to plot, the more operatives you need to carry it out, the more money it costs to finance it and the greater the chances for the plot to go awry.

MARTIN: And we've also passed another anniversary, which is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many observers consider that the first real test of the Homeland Securities Department to react to a disaster. You know, this is a natural disaster. There were, of course, manmade components with the breach of the levees, but this wasn't a terrorist attack. Did you draw any lesson from the way Homeland Security reacted to that disaster?

Mr. ERVIN: I did, and it was a very troubling lesson that I drew from it. And that is that if the United States government was so manifestly unprepared for something that was not just foreseeable but actually foreseen, a catastrophic hurricane. Now, of course, two years have passed since Katrina and certainly improvements have been made, particularly in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, and I'm from the Gulf Coast. But even the Department of Homeland Security, in whose interest it is not to underplay how much progress has been made, concedes that cities across the country are not as prepared two years after Katrina for another catastrophic natural disaster. And all the experts agree that cities generally are not anymore significantly prepared for a major catastrophic terrorist attack than they were on 9/11.

MARTIN: You know, Clark, we're talking about this very calmly, which is, you know, appropriate. But I wonder, you live in the nation's capital. You have a family. How should ordinary citizens think about all of the things that you're telling us? I mean, are there steps that ordinary citizens should be taking? Is there some appropriate role they play in national security? You know, what does an individual do?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, I guess I'd say two things. First of all - and this is a sobering message, I realize - but I think there's very little that the average citizen can do to affect national security policy.

The first business of government is to provide for the common defense. That is something that the government only, uniquely, can do. And so, really, the only thing that the average citizen can do is to put pressure on his or her leaders on the administration, on Congress, congressmen and women and senators, to get them to do what ought to be done to close the security gaps that could be closed.

I guess the second thing I'd say is that it's a very fine balance that should be struck. On the one hand, people should not be terrorized. They should not live in constant fear of being attacked. That's no way to live. On the other hand, we can't be complacent. And so, as I say, that it's very, very fine balance and it's easier to articulate than to live that way, but that's what we've got to do.

MARTIN: Clark Kent Ervin directs the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute. He's also the author of "Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack." He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Clark, that was a sobering message, but thank you.

Mr. ERVIN: Thank you very much, Michel.

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