Ten years after al-Qaida used hijacked airliners as missiles to attack the United States, terrorists continue to target aviation more than any other potential U.S. vulnerability, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said Thursday.
As the country prepares to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Napolitano expects questions about whether the U.S. is safer than it was 10 years ago, after all of the security enhancements and the targeted killing of terror leader Osama bin Laden.
"The answer is yes, but there are no guarantees in a world of ever-evolving threats," she told The Associated Press in an interview.
The Sept. 11 attacks prompted the largest government reorganization in decades, drastically changed U.S. security policies and led to billions in spending to strengthen U.S. terrorism defenses. Many of the changes, such as the linkages of federal intelligence databases and deployment of nuclear detection technology at ports, are not obvious to the American public. But a trip through one of the country's 457 airports is an instant reminder of how much has changed.
Airport security went from being inconvenient shortly after the attacks to what some travelers and privacy advocates consider intrusive 10 years later.
At first there were frustratingly long lines and mandatory shoe-removal at security checkpoints. Then there were limitations of the amount of shampoo a traveler can bring in a carry-on bag and full-body imaging machines that display a naked picture of a passenger so screeners can detect hidden weapons. And other policies, like invasive pat-downs on children and the elderly _ who appear to pose no terror threat _ have enraged some travelers who want the government to use common sense.
There's a reason for all of this, Napolitano said: "Aviation continues to be the most-often referenced intel that we receive."
The government has made adjustments where it can, most recently introducing technology that would produce an outline of a person instead of a naked image on some of the airport checkpoint machines around the country. But restrictions on liquids, Napolitano said, aren't going away any time soon.
The Homeland Security Department was created because of the 2001 terror attacks. The department is a merger of more than 20 government agencies and has more oversight and input from Congress than any other federal department. About one-third of the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, a panel assigned to diagnose the failures behind the 2001 attacks, are directed at or involve the department. The report, issued seven years ago, was a best-seller, and its 41 recommendations quickly became major guidelines for government security improvements.
The department issued a progress report Thursday on its implementation of the recommendations. Napolitano said her agency has made "significant progress" in fulfilling most of them.
The co-chairs of the commission, however, fault the department for not doing enough to streamline first responder communications and coordination during a disaster and for not having a biometric system that tracks foreigners as they leave the country. The latter, the commission said, is "an essential investment in our national security." To that, Napolitano said the exit system is expensive, and other policies put in place since the attacks address the same issue and for a lot less money.
The department has tested and tossed new technologies over the past 10 years. And Napolitano said it's her responsibility to be a "steward" of taxpayer dollars and make decisions about where money is best spent.
The threat, too, has changed.
Whereas in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a top concern was terrorists getting ahold of a nuclear weapon and attacking the U.S., now counterterrorism officials fear the unknown terror operative, working independently in the U.S. and below the radar of intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
There have been two successful attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 that were motivated by al-Qaida's ideology, both in 2009: the shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, when an Army psychiatrist killed 13 people, and the killing of a soldier outside a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., when a Tennessee man opened fire. Both gunmen were U.S. citizens, inspired to kill by a violent interpretation of Islam that has been spreading across western countries.
While there have been few terror successes, it's not for lack of trying. For example, in 2009 a Nigerian man nearly brought down an airliner over Detroit with a bomb he hid in his underwear; a Pakistani-American tried to set off a car bomb on a busy New York street corner in 2010; and law enforcement has disrupted several plots that targeted urban subway systems.
Yet in the absence of a 9/11 repeat _ another carefully orchestrated attack that kills hundreds of innocent people _ the country's security vulnerabilities are not the top concern of the average American in these tough economic times.
Napolitano said she is aware that people's guard may be down, and also aware that her department must guard against the perception that it is crying wolf.
"You have to continue to rethink and give people information so they can make good decisions about what to do for themselves, for their families, for their communities," she said.
For instance, it was clear to her _ and late night comedians _ that the color-coded alert system installed after the attacks was of little actual help to the average American. And so, she said, the Obama administration this year replaced the colors with a more descriptive warning system intended to offer specific information to the public when the situation warrants it. The government has yet to issue such a warning.
Napolitano said, "The task I have is to help keep the American people aware, but not afraid."
DHS progress report on 9/11 commission recommendations: