Risk of Terror Attack Still High, Panel Told

Intelligence officials told the Senate Homeland Security committee Monday that the U.S. is still at high risk of terrorist attacks. Some aspects of security have been improved, they say, but not enough to justify complacency.

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Six years after 9/11, the nation remains at high risk of another attack. That was the message today from top intelligence and Homeland Security officials. Speaking before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, they said many improvements have been made in security, but they are concerned that the country is becoming complacent.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The intelligence officials said almost in unison what they've been saying for months now, that the country is safer than it was before 9/11, but that recent arrests of suspected terrorists in Germany and elsewhere show that the threat is still very real.

Here's director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell.

Mr. MICHAEL McCONNELL (Director, National Intelligence): We assess that al-Qaida is planning to attack the homeland, is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties.

FESSLER: And National Counterterrorism Center Director Scott Redd.

Mr. SCOTT REDD (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): We are in a long war. And our enemy is determined and dangerous.

FESSLER: And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): They have not lost interest. And if we allow ourselves to become complacent and to think that the threat has diminished, we're going to be crippling ourselves in our ability to prevent future attacks.

FESSLER: Chertoff, for one, has been frustrated recently because lawmakers and others have pushed to delay new security measures, such as secured driver's licenses. For his part, McConnell warned against putting limits on the government's ability to monitor the phone calls of suspected terrorists. Congress extended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this summer. But some lawmakers want to add restrictions because of civil liberties concerns.

Mr. McCONNELL: If we lose FISA, we will lose, my estimate, 50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists, what they're doing to train, what they're doing to recruit, and what they're doing to try to get into this country.

FESSLER: McConnell credited the law with helping authorities to link suspected terrorists recently arrested in Germany to al-Qaida. Committee members were sympathetic. They also agreed with the officials on the seriousness of the threat, but questioned whether enough has been done.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): We are safer, but there are still gaping holes.

FESSLER: Claire McCaskill is a Democrat from Missouri.

Sen. McCASKILL: There are still major problems, whether it's communication, whether it's technology, whether it's the struggle for ideas that we seem to be failing at around the world.

FESSLER: She said one especially vexing area is aviation security, which often doesn't seem to make sense.

Sen. McCASKILL: I was on a flight just yesterday where mothers were comparing notes. Well, I got my apple juice through. Did you get your apple juice through?

FESSLER: Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said no system is perfect, but that his agency has tried to come up with consistent rules for carrying liquids on board, at least until the government finds machines that can accurately detect liquid explosives.

Sec. CHERTOFF: The general rule is if it pours or smears, it's a liquid and it has to go in that plastic bag.

FESSLER: Maine Republican Susan Collins also complained about the continued inaccuracy of lists the government uses to track potential terrorists, preventing some people from flying or entering the country.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): All of us have had examples of constituents who have been on the list because their name is similar from someone, to someone who should be on the list.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): As is often the case, it's a question of money and personnel. And we are putting money and personnel into assuring and upgrading our quality assurance.

FESSLER: FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency is working to eliminate the inaccuracies, but that it's not always easy. He and the other officials said the real improvement since 9/11 is that they're all doing a much better job working together and sharing information. But even there, McConnell said, the agencies could do better.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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U.S. Still at Risk of Terrorism, Security Officials Say

U.S. officials (from left) Michael Chertoff, Michael McConnell, John Redd, Robert Muller i i

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (from left), Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, Director of the National Counterterrorism John Scott Redd, and Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert Mueller appear before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Sept. 10, 2007, in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images
U.S. officials (from left) Michael Chertoff, Michael McConnell, John Redd, Robert Muller

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (from left), Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, Director of the National Counterterrorism John Scott Redd, and Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert Mueller appear before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Sept. 10, 2007, in Washington, D.C.

Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images

The United States is still at high risk of attack six years after Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's top intelligence and security officials told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Officials said that there have been many improvements in the nation's security systems, but recent arrests of suspected terrorists in Germany and elsewhere show that the threat is still very real.

The directors of the FBI, National Intelligence, National Counterterrorism Center, and the secretary of Homeland Security spoke with one voice about the potential dangers that still lie ahead.

"We assess that al-Qaida is planning to attack the homeland," said Michael McConnell, the director of National Intelligence, "and is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with a goal of producing mass casualties."

Scott Redd, the NCTC director, said, "We are in a long war and our enemy is determined and dangerous."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff didn't mince words either. "They have not lost interest," Chertoff told the committee. "And if we allow ourselves to become complacent and to think that the threat has diminished, we're going to be crippling ourselves in our ability to prevent future attacks."

Lawmakers have frustrated Chertoff by dragging their feet on a roster of new security measures he is seeking including secure driver's licenses. McConnell warned against hobbling the government's ability to monitor the phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists. While Congress extended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this summer, some lawmakers want to add restrictions because of civil liberties concerns. McConnell suggested that was a mistake.

"If we lose FISA, we will lose, my estimate, 50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists," McConnell told the committee. "What they're doing to train, what they're doing to recruit, and what they're doing to try to get into this country."

McConnell said the law helped law enforcement authorities track the terrorists who were recently arrested in Germany and link them to al-Qaida.

The men got a sympathetic hearing from the committee, though they questioned whether enough has been done.

"We are safer, but there are still gaping holes," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. "There are still major problems, whether it's communications, whether it's technology, whether it's the struggle for ideas that we seem to be failing at around the world."

McCaskill singled out aviation security as one of the areas that needed attention.

"I was on a flight just yesterday where mothers were comparing notes," she told the counterterrorism chiefs. "One said 'Well, I got my apple juice through. Did you get your apple juice through?"

Chertoff said that Homeland Security was trying to come up with consistent rules for carrying liquids on planes until the government could install machines that can accurately detect liquid explosives.

"The general rule is if it pours or smears, it's a liquid and it has to go in that plastic bag," Chertoff told the committee.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, complained about the continued inaccuracy of lists the government uses to track potential terrorists, preventing some people from flying or entering the country.

"All of us have had examples of constituents who have been on the list because their name is similar to someone who should be on the list," Sen. Collins said. "As is often the case, it's a question of money and personnel and we are putting money and personnel into assuring and upgrading our quality assurance."

FBI director Robert Mueller said his agency is working to eliminate the inaccuracies, but that doing so is hard. He and the other officials said the most marked improvement since the attacks of Sept. 11 was that the intelligence community was doing a much better job at working together and sharing information. But even there, McConnell admitted, the agencies could do better.

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