Judging the Impact: A Post 9-11 America

California National Guard members patrol at the south end of the Golden Gate bridge near San Francisco, March 19, 2003. Credit: Corbis
California National Guard members patrol at the south end of the Golden Gate bridge near San Francisco, March 19, 2003. · Credit: Corbis © 2004

Homeland Security Advisory System
The Homeland Security Advisory System · Credit: U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. · Credit: U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security

July 16, 2004 -- In the past three years, the nation's law enforcement and intelligence communities addressed vulnerabilities exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks. And the creation of the vast new Department of Homeland Security capped a massive reorganization of the federal government. But members of the 9-11 Commission say those reforms are insufficient. Below are major changes made to date:

» Department of Homeland Security

» A New FBI Focus

» Terrorist Threat Integration Center

» USA Patriot Act

» Border Protection

» Aviation Security

» Alert System

» Emergency Preparedness

Department of Homeland Security

The lack of a Cabinet-level department dedicated to overseeing domestic security was a major complaint emerging from policy debates following the Sept. 11 attacks. Within weeks of the strikes on New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, President Bush tapped the latter state's Gov. Tom Ridge to develop a "comprehensive national strategy to strengthen the United States against terrorist threats or attacks." Initially the Bush administration opposed creating a new department, but under pressure from Congress later took the lead in proposing a major reorganization.

In January 2003, Ridge became secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an amalgamation of more than 20 agencies and 180,000 employees from disparate corners of government. Agencies folded into the new department included the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration and the Border Patrol. DHS is supposed to coordinate the nation's homeland security efforts, not only within the federal government, but with state and local officials and the private sector as well. But the department faces many challenges, including funding, intelligence sharing, technology and coordination with other government agencies.

A New FBI Focus

Director Robert Mueller took office on Sept. 4, 2001, and has made a number of reforms to the Justice Department's investigative arm. The bureau has declared counterterrorism to be its chief focus, and has shifted resources away from enforcement of drug laws and other crimes. After passage of the USA Patriot Act, the bureau integrated criminal investigations with foreign and domestic intelligence gathering, a major shift in policy. Efforts have also been made to improve communications between 56 regional field offices and headquarters in Washington. Congress appropriated half a billion dollars in new funds last year for counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and upgrading aging FBI computer networks, among other programs.

Terrorist Threat Integration Center

Launched last year as a place to pool the latest information on terrorist schemes, TTIC incorporates the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Defense Department. TTIC drew early opposition from lawmakers who feared the center would add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the intelligence community.

The Bush administration has tasked TTIC with improving threat analysis, sharing information among agencies, comparing foreign and domestic intelligence, maintaining a list of known and suspected terrorists, and informing the president and other leaders about terrorist threats. However, the center faces challenges in integrating several secure computer networks, and its April 2004 terrorism assessment was later revised after undercounting the number of terrorist attacks worldwide in the previous year.

USA Patriot Act

Passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the USA Patriot Act has been hailed by the administration as a key tool in the war on terror. It's also been attacked by civil liberties groups as a sign that the war on terror has led to an assault on civil liberties. The act expanded police powers to obtain evidence in terror cases, made it easier to share information from intelligence and criminal investigations, and made it easier to survey terror suspects and delay notification of searches in terror cases.

Concern about the act has been exacerbated by the Justice Department's refusal to disclose information about how the law has been used, citing national security concerns. Some controversial portions of the law are due to expire at the end of 2005. The approach of the "sunset" provision has sparked a campaign by the administration to further strengthen law enforcement powers, in the interests of stepping up the war on terror. Civil liberties groups have formed a coalition of Democrats and conservatives who want to curtail some USA Patriot powers.

Border Protection

Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 brought several former border and security agencies under one umbrella called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In combining the resources, jurisdictions, and functions of the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Protective Service and later, the Federal Air Marshals Service, ICE has become Homeland Security's largest investigative bureau. Its responsibilities include securing the nation's long, porous borders with Mexico and Canada. Agents also track weapons smuggling and shipments of so-called "dual-use" equipment that could be used as weapons.

Increased numbers of plainclothes federal air marshals now fly aboard passenger airlines to deter terrorists, and interdiction teams coordinate air and land responses to border threats. Meanwhile, ICE's new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) has automated and centralized tracking of foreign students during stays in the United States -- and a US-VISIT program launched in 2004 requires visa holders to be photographed and fingerprinted before entering the country. Critics say such programs still have major loopholes, especially because the terror watch lists against which names are compared are incomplete and often inaccurate.

Aviation Security

Congress passed legislation shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11 creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which federalized passenger and baggage screening at the nation's airports. More than $9 billion has been spent on enhanced security measures that require passengers to arrive hours before flying, and to submit their shoes, jackets and laptop computers to inspection. The same legislation required that passenger airplanes flying in the United States have reinforced cockpit doors to prevent intruders from gaining access to the flight deck.

Following negotiations with pilot unions and passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002, TSA began deputizing and arming commercial pilots. On the ground, controversy has centered around 45,000 TSA security personnel. Inefficiencies at screening checkpoints and studies comparing private and government inspection programs mean that some airports could opt out of the federal program, as allowed this fall, and hire private screening firms. Many lawmakers complain that cargo on passenger planes is inadequately screened and that existing screening equipment does not detect plastic explosives.

Alert System

Bush administration officials declared the need for a "Homeland Security Advisory System" in early 2002, as a means to "disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts to federal, state and local authorities." The color-coded scale unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security has since been adopted by government Web sites, and criticized by legislators and the media for sending mixed signals, providing little useful information and unnecessarily frightening the American public.

Officially, the Department of Homeland Security adjusts the threat condition according to intelligence reports, characterizing risk as "low," or green, "guarded," or blue, "elevated," or yellow, "high" or orange, and "severe" or red. Since 2002, advisory levels have toggled between yellow and orange.

Local officials have complained about the high cost of increased security in response to higher threat levels. There have been some estimates that the costs to cities during such periods reach as high as $70 million per week. As a result, DHS has been reluctant to raise the level this year. Earlier this month Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned of terrorists planning an attack in the United States, possibly to disrupt the November elections, but offered no specific threat details and declined to change the terror alert level. Days later Congress' General Accounting Office issued a report recommending that DHS's advisory system be retooled to clear up confusion.

Emergency Preparedness

Another issue emerging from the experience of Sept. 11: the difficulty New York firefighters, police, and other first responders had trying to talk to each other while responding to attacks. Emergency managers at the Pentagon crash site also had to rely on runners to exchange messages when radio communications failed due to mismatched frequencies. Homeland Security's SAFECOM program has tried to improve the interoperability of wireless devices used by public safety organizations, but with 50,000 local agencies relying on an assortment of equipment, officials have only begun to address the problem.

In an April report, the General Accounting Office said changes in leadership and inadequate interagency cooperation have limited SAFECOM's progress. Still, current managers have pledged interoperable emergency communications for the nation's ten largest urban areas by the end of the year. Beyond interoperability, emergency officials complain of patchy radio coverage due to bandwidth limitations and insufficient funding.

Turf wars among agencies responding to large-scale emergencies have also drawn the 9-11 Commission's attention. Earlier this year DHS rolled out a new 24-hour operations hub to serve as "the primary, national-level nerve center" for domestic incident management, connecting more than 35 federal and regional authorities. Finally, local first responders say that they need more federal aid for equipment and training, although the federal government has made billions of dollars in such grants since Sept. 11.



Web Resources


The Testimony

Sept. 11 Hearings

Archived audio of hearings from the 9-11 Commission.


The Sept. 11 Attacks

America Transformed

NPR Coverage of the Sept. 11 Attacks


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