U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say government steps have made it more difficult for terrorists to operate in the United States even as leaders of an investigative panel assail Washington for moving too slowly to protect the nation and the Department of Homeland Security itself reveals it will scrap billions of dollars worth of hastily purchased equipment.
The U.S. count of major world terrorist attacks more than tripled in 2004, but terrorist threats against the United States were at their lowest level since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, intelligence officials and congressional sources said last week.
They said the number of "significant" international terrorist attacks rose to about 650 last year, from about 175 in 2003. At the same time, the intelligence community’s daily threat assessment, developed after the terrorist attacks to keep policymakers informed, currently lists, on average, 25-50 percent fewer threats against domestic targets than it typically did over the past two years.
Veteran observers regarded the figures with suspicion.
"A question has to be raised about the validity of any U.S. count of terrorist incidents. They fudge the data on everything else, and were already caught undercounting terrorist incidents to make it appear that the war on terror is doing its job. Why trust any count that isn’t confirmed by a reliable source?" said Beau Grosscup, professor of international relations at California State University in Chico.
Days earlier, the former chairman and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, said they believe the government is moving too slowly to implement the recommendations made in their 567-page report, released last summer.
Kean and Hamilton announced they plan to hold a series of hearings this summer to assess the government’s progress in responding to the commission’s recommendations. Commission members then are expected to issue a report on their findings.
Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said Washington’s performance has been deficient in reorganizing Congress to better oversee intelligence and homeland security agencies, and ensuring that more radio frequencies were available so that fire, ambulance, and police agencies could talk to each other during emergencies.
They also criticized slow progress in public diplomacy and the staffing and funding of a civil liberties board under last year’s massive reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community, and appointment of a director of national intelligence to supervise the country’s 15 intelligence agencies. The intelligence reorganization was triggered largely by the commission’s recommendations.
Against that background, the commission’s leaders are unlikely to be heartened by an announcement last week from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that it will have to replace or alter much of the $4.5 billion in equipment it hurriedly bought immediately after 9/11. The equipment includes screening devices to monitor the nation’s ports, borders, airports, mail, and air. The DHS said the technology to detect guns, explosives, and nuclear and biological weapons is ineffective, unreliable, or too expensive to operate.
Some of the changes are due to the emergence of new technology. But in other instances, devices now being used appear to have had only marginal impact on the nation’s security. The DHS declined to comment further.
"The statement that we had to spend lots of money to show our commitment is laughable, as if the dollar totals spent would impress the public, rather than real performance," said Grosscup.
"Expenditures on key security matters such as protecting chemical plants and nuclear facilities and ports has been sadly lacking," he told IPS.
Technology problems include dysfunctional radiation monitors at ports and borders, air-monitoring equipment in major cities that is only marginally effective, faulty passenger-screening equipment at airports, and Postal Service machines that test only a small percentage of mail and look for anthrax but no other biological agents.
Grosscup said "the most revealing aspect of this is the fact that so much money had to be spent quickly to show that something was being done even if it doesn’t work or was wrong."
"This has been a basic mantra of U.S. counterterrorism policy. The point is to make the public think something is being done for political purposes," he added.
Regarding terrorist attacks, the U.S. State Department last year published figures it later said significantly underestimated the threat. It revised those figures but also announced it would no longer issue its annual report on the subject. Instead, the figures would be released by the newly created National Counterterrorism Center that compiles the data.
Brian Foley, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla., took a different view of the threat. "The fact that there’s been no major terrorist attack here in more than three and a half years since 9/11, or even a small one except for last week’s casualty-free grenade-toss at the British consulate in New York, suggests that the terrorist threat has been enormously exaggerated," he said.
"The Sword of Damocles we are told hangs over our heads appears to be a butter knife," Foley added. "Perhaps the government has not acted quickly on unpopular-with-industry reforms such as beefing up security at chemical plants because it knows that the threat is far less than our leaders have led us to believe? Compare the government’s intransigence in protecting vulnerable industries, ports, and transportation, with its zeal and speed in invading Afghanistan and Iraq, or its warp-speed passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. Plainly, the government can get done what it truly wants to do!"
He was referring to legislation that expands law enforcers’ powers of search and seizure. Supporters say the law has helped prevent terrorist attacks but opponents say it has given the government cover to invade citizens’ privacy and clamp down on labor advocacy.
Edward Herman, co-author of the books The Terrorism Industry, The Real Terror Network, and Manufacturing Consent, said "all this demonstrates again and again that the so-called war on terrorism is political in nature, serving the political interests of those on the ‘right side’ of the terrorism issue."