WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Three years ago this week, 19 radical Islamic Jihadists seized four airplanes and killed 2,996 people in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Somerset County, Pa. The terrorists' goal was to kill so many Americans that we would retreat from the world stage, waving the white flag of defeat.
It was the same goal that motivated Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto on Dec. 7, 1941, when his 351 aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor and killed 2,388 Americans. Both events had many of the same effects: We went immediately to war, dispatched our armed forces to fight our enemies overseas and mobilized to protect our home front. The parallels don't stop there.
Both the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack and that of Sept. 11, 2001, rallied the American people to coalesce in the face of a terrifying threat for which we were unprepared. Both prompted congressional investigations, a dramatic shift in government priorities and wartime reorganizations. But unlike Pearl Harbor, the Sept. 11 assault failed to unify America's political leadership over how to protect our homeland.
During World War II, more than 150,000 "enemy aliens" -- Japanese, Germans and Italians living in the United States -- were rounded up and interned. The FBI and our military were granted broad powers to arrest and detain people. Those accused of being enemy spies or saboteurs were tried by military tribunals, convicted and, in most cases, executed in short order. Air raid drills, bomb shelters, rationing, blackout curtains, "sand-bag brigades" and reminders that "loose lips sink ships" were routine for American civilians and endorsed by politicians of every political stripe throughout World War II. Not so for the War on Terror.
In an effort to redress gaping holes in our nation's domestic security, in June 2002, President George W. Bush asked for authority to create a new Cabinet department accountable for protecting the homeland and improving the safety of American citizens in this new war. On Nov. 25, 2002, after months of acrimonious and partisan debate over union rights and meaningless "riders," the Congress finally passed the Homeland Security Act.
Just two months later, in the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense was created in 1947, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) went into operation -- placing responsibility for the activities of 22 Federal agencies and 183,000 government employees on the shoulders of one person -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Since then, Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and decorated Vietnam combat veteran, has been in the crosshairs of a hostile media and the minority party in Congress. And now that we're in the midst of a presidential election, the sniping has become a barrage.
Is the criticism fair? Has the Department of Homeland Security made us any safer? Is the color-coded terrorism risk alert system being used for political purposes, as some allege? Have the numerous problems of coordination, communication and cooperation identified by the 9-11 Commission been fixed? Are taxpayers getting their money's worth from the $33 billion DHS budget ($41 billion next year)?
These are some of the questions that Fox News assigned me to answer on this third anniversary of the 9-11 attack. Ridge opened the door to our "War Stories" producers and camera teams, granting unprecedented access to investigate literally any aspect of DHS activities, with only one pre-condition: that we would not reveal any tactic or procedure that might increase our vulnerability. That's the same guideline we use in covering U.S. combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, so we agreed -- and spent the last three weeks crisscrossing America to prepare a detailed report card on how well we're being protected from those who seek to kill us.
For a complete exposition on what dozens of federal, state and local officials told and showed us, watch the documentary special, "The War on Terror: The American Home Front" (Fox News Channel, Sunday, 8:00 PM EDT). Here it is in brief:
-- Contrary to press reports, the Homeland Security Operations Center is today a streamlined, high tech, facility, staffed 24-7, where all relevant terror intelligence is fused and disseminated to those who can act on it -- even local law enforcement.
-- New terror attacks have been thwarted -- numerous times -- though little is reported about these "success stories."
-- The merger of diverse agencies like the Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration, Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration and Border Patrol has improved protection of our 7,500 mile-long borders, air, ground and mass transit systems, ports of entry, waterways, freight railways, and computer infrastructure.
-- We have stockpiled a billion doses of antibiotics and vaccines, including enough smallpox vaccine for every man, woman and child in America, and DHS has created a "national medicine cabinet" that can be shipped anywhere in the United States in 12 hours.
-- DHS has spent $500 million improving infrastructure security; $350 million to develop nuclear and bioterrorism defenses; $373 million on new border security equipment; and $13.1 billion to equip the nation's first responders for terrorism preparedness.
-- "Curb to cockpit," air safety has been enhanced by 6,200 hardened cockpit doors, 6,800 new passenger screening devices, thousands of air marshals and pilots packing heat.
-- More than 500,000 "first responders" have received new training and equipment to mitigate the consequences of a terror attack.
-- American civilians are calling in "terror tips" and assembling their own "Preparedness kits."
-- Some of the best minds in America -- scientists I call "MacGyvers with Ph.D.s" -- are working on high tech solutions to explosive detection, WMD protection and the challenges of disarming terror devices.
Bottom line: In the three years since Sept. 11, thanks to the DHS, we're a lot safer. Is it perfect? No. But as Ridge told me last week: "We have to be right -- in every decision we make -- at the borders, at the airports, over a billion times a year. The terrorists only have to be right once."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.