The Status of U.S. Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

The Status of U.S. Counterterrorism and Homeland Security
The Status of U.S. Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

Forwarded with the permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute 

Clark Kent Ervin
March 2007

Clark Kent Ervin heads the Aspen Institutes Homeland Security 
initiative. Before joining the Institute, he served as the first 
Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He has 
been an on-air analyst and contributor at CNN and is the author of Open 
Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack (St. Martins, May 2006). 
This enote is based on his presentation at Five Years After 9/11: What 
Needs to be Done? a conference sponsored by FPRIs Center on Terrorism, 
Counterterrorism, and Homeland Security, held December 4-5, 2006 in 
Philadelphia. The Center is supported by grants from the Department of 
Community and Economic Development and the Department of Education, 
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

I am often asked whether, in my judgment, DHS has made America safer 
than we were on 9/11. My answer to that question is yes. But, whether we 
are safer today than we were on 9/11 is not the only question. The key 
questions are: are we really as safe as the government says we are, are 
we as safe we need to be, and, are we as safe as we can be. The answer 
to these questions, ominously, is no.

Aviation Security

Because we were attacked on 9/11 by and through this sector, it stands 
to reason that we have focused the lions share of our efforts since then 
on closing security gaps therein. In the past five years, cockpit doors 
have been hardened; some pilots are armed; the number of air marshals 
has increased significantly; and screeners are better trained and more 
sensitized to the critical role they play as the last line of defense 
before would-be terrorists board airplanes. Even in this sector, though, 
we are far more vulnerable to terrorism than we should be this many 
years after 9/11 and after the creation of a department created to 
prevent another such attack. One after another government investigation 
have shown that it is as easy as it was five years ago for terrorists to 
sneak deadly weapons past unsuspecting screeners.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the president asked the 
Transportation Departments Inspector General, in whose jurisdiction 
oversight of aviation security lay at the time, to undertake a series of 
undercover investigations at airports around the country to test the 
then privatized screeners ability to detect concealed weapons. This was 
intended to set a baseline against which progress going forward could be 
assessed. The results were devastating, even at a time of heightened 
alert. The concern, of course, was that if government investigators 
could still easily sneak weapons past screeners, so could hardened Al 
Qaeda operatives, who are more than willing to die trying. When I was 
appointed the first DHS Inspector General, I sent my own teams of 
undercover investigators to the very same airports to see whether two 
years later the federalization of the screener workforce and the 
transfer of the Transportation Security Administration from DOT to DHS 
had made any difference in screeners ability to spot deadly weapons. 
When our results came in, we found exactly the same failure rates as in 
2001, to the decimal point. I sent the very same teams of investigators 
to the same airports in late 2004 and early 2005 to see whether the 
recommendations that we had made in early 2004, based on the first 
investigation, had been implemented, and, if so, whether screener 
performance had improved. We found exactly the same results as two years 
earlier. There had been literally no improvement in screeners 
performance in four years. It is not as if things are any better now. 
This past April investigators working for Congress investigative arm, 
the Government Accountability Office, were able to sneak bomb parts 
undetected through checkpoints at some 21 airports around the country. 
And, as recently as late October, screeners missed guns and bombs in 20 
out of 22 tests at Newark International Airport, one of the airports 
transited by some of the 9/11 hijackers.

And, of course, the nation was set on edge last summer when the British 
foiled a plot to blow up by means of liquid explosives multiple 
jetliners bound for our East Coast. What is most troubling about this 
near-miss attack is that we Americans had prior warning as to our 
vulnerability to liquid explosives. Arch-terrorist Ramzi Yousef 
successfully tested liquid explosives back in 1994, killing a man, in 
preparation for a plot to blow up multiple jetliners over the West Coast 
planned for the next year. So we had twelve years to develop 
technologies to counter the threat of liquid explosives, but we did 
nothing. As a consequence, lacking any alternative, TSA was forced to 
take the draconian step of briefly banning all liquids and gels from 
flights. Of course, the ban has since been relaxed a bit, but this 
smacks more of capitulation to pressure from the struggling airline 
industry than anything. (Business travelers especially, the lifeblood of 
the airline industry, complained bitterly about being forced to check 
essential toiletries on short-haul flights.) Now liquids can be brought 
onto planes if they are bought in airport shops past the screening 
checkpoint. But, the claim last summer was that otherwise innocuous 
liquids and gels can be combined to make deadly explosives. Either this 
is true or it is not. If it is true, what difference does it make if the 
liquids are purchased after travelers pass through screening if they can 
bring the liquids aboard airplanes and mix them on board?

Another continuing vulnerability is air cargo. About a fifth of the 
airborne cargo is carried aboard passenger planes, as opposed to 
dedicated cargo planes. That means that at one time or another most 
Americans have probably been aboard a commercial flight with cargo in 
the hold. Most of the cargo is not inspected for explosives before it is 
loaded onto the plane. There are supposed to be random inspections from 
time and time. And, if there is specific intelligence indicating that a 
particular package or container is high-risk, it is supposed to be 
opened and inspected. But any inspections that are done are done not by 
our government, but by the airlines. Yet, the whole point of creating 
TSA was that, left to their own devices, airlines would put profit ahead 
of security concerns. And, whether the airlines actually do any 
inspections is unknown, because TSA does not require them to report 
whether they are conducting them. There is 100 percent inspection of air 
cargo in Britain, Israel, and the Netherlands, and there is no reason 
why we cannot do the same here in the United States. So, again, even in 
the area where we have done the most to make ourselves more secure, we 
are still dangerously vulnerable.

Port Security

During the course of the hard-fought 2004 presidential campaign, 
President Bush and Senator John Kerry disagreed about every single 
issue, except one. Each agreed that the number one threat facing the 
nation is nuclear terrorism. All the experts agree that the likeliest 
way for terrorists to smuggle WMD into the country are in one of the 11 
million cargo containers that come into our 361 seaports each year. 
Though the technology exists to screen all cargo containers for 
radiation at a reasonable cost and without unduly slowing down commerce 
(the worlds busiest port, the Port of Hong Kong, does just that, at a 
cost of about $20 per container), we inspect only 6 percent of 
containers. This figure is based on an "Automated Targeting System" 
(ATS) that is less sophisticated than it sounds. It is based essentially 
on: (1) the cargo manifest, a list of a containers contents that can be 
as general as "merchandise," and which can be legally amended for up to 
60 days after the container arrives in port in the U.S.; and (2) the 
cargos shipping route, which likewise can easily be fabricated. My team 
of auditors at DHS found that dangerous items smuggled aboard cargo were 
likelier to be found by random inspections than by ATS. So, we inspect a 
wholly arbitrary percentage of cargo containers on the basis of 
essentially no criteria at all. Moreover, we have too few radiation 
detection machines, and the ones we have cannot distinguish between 
deadly radiation and harmless radiation that naturally occurs in 
products like bananas, ceramic tiles, and kitty litter.

DHS touts as accomplishments maritime security programs that wind up 
making the nation less safe than no programs at all. It maintains that 
if we wait to inspect cargo containers when they arrive at our seaports, 
it might well be too late. So, ideally, we should "push the borders" out 
by stationing our cargo inspectors abroad to ensure that foreign ports 
inspect cargo bound for the U.S. that our intelligence analysts believe 
may be high-risk. The Container Security Initiative (CSI) is intended to 
do just that, and we have CSI agreements with 50 ports around the world 
representing about 90 percent of seaborne cargo bound for the United 
States. The problem, according to GAO, is that more than 80 percent of 
the time, foreign inspectors refuse to inspect cargo that our 
intelligence indicates is potentially dangerous, and, for reasons of 
sovereignty, our inspectors stationed abroad cannot do the inspections 
themselves. The likelihood that this cargo will be inspected once it 
gets to an American port is low, because its originating from a CSI port 
creates the presumption that it is probably safe. And even if the cargo 
were inspected at an American port upon arrival, the whole point of CSI 
is that waiting until then to do inspections may be too late.

The other chimerical DHS maritime security program is the Customs Trade 
Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT). In exchange for simply submitting 
paperwork claiming that it has a rigorous security regime in place to 
guard against terrorist penetration, a company can decrease the chance 
that its cargo will go through the relatively costly and time-consuming 
process of inspection. DHS attempts to validate that the claimed 
security programs are in fact in place, but only after companies benefit 
from reduced inspections, and any audits that are done are limited to 
whatever features of security programs companies permit DHS to check.

This is the state of our counterterrorism efforts in the sector where a 
successful terrorist attack is likely to have the severest consequences. 
A 10- to 20-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated in a major seaport would 
kill between 50,000 and one million people, and would result in direct 
property damage of $50-500 billion, losses due to trade disruption of 
$100-200 billion, and indirect costs of $300 billion to $1.2 trillion.

Border Security

The 9/11 hijackers all chose to come to this country through legal ports 
of entry. Given the ease with which people can slip across our northern 
and southern borders undetected, one wonders why the hijackers increased 
their chances of being caught by subjecting themselves to inspection. It 
is surely because it was so ridiculously easy five years ago to evade 
the scrutiny of border inspectors.

It is much harder to do that today, especially if a terrorist is a 
national of a country whose citizens need visas to visit the U.S. Now, 
visa applicants are likelier to be interviewed by an American consular 
officer, and a much more extensive "watch list" of known and suspected 
terrorists is checked. The U.S. VISIT system that takes two finger scans 
and digital photographs of international visitors at ports of entry is a 
huge advance since 9/11 in terms of getting a handle on who is visiting 
our country legally and whether a given visitor is a known or suspected 

But, instead of cutting back on the number of countries (27) whose 
citizens can travel to the United States without a visa, in November 
2006 the president announced plans to expand it. Terrorists prize 
passports from "visa waiver" countries because such travelers are 
checked only at the port of entry. They do not undergo what can be 
lengthy and thorough interviews at embassies and consulates abroad by 
consular officers who often know the local language, are familiar with 
local customs, and are trained in detecting fraud and deception. 
Instead, they are simply given the once-over by under-trained and 
harried port of entry inspectors who are under pressure to clear 
international visitors through as quickly as possible.

The U.S. VISIT system is also incomplete. It is operational only "in 
secondary" at land crossings, meaning that border inspectors have to be 
suspicious of a given traveler before scrutinizing him. Mexicans and 
Canadians, who constitute the bulk of people who come to the United 
States by land, are exempt from the system. Late last year the 
department announced that it was abandoning efforts to add an exit 
feature to the program. So, if we subsequently find out that we have 
admitted a terrorist into the country, we will have no way of knowing 
whether he is still here. And, though Secretary Chertoff has promised to 
fix this soon, the U.S. VISIT system is still not compatible with the 
FBIs database of 47 million fingerprints, among which are the prints of 
at least 40,000 known or suspected terrorists. Finally, it is, of 
course, still as easy as ever for terrorists to sneak into the country 
among the throngs (about half a million) of illegal aliens who come into 
this country each year. In his final congressional testimony as DHS 
Deputy Secretary Jim Loy acknowledged that this is a real threat.

Mass Transit Security

We have had a number of wake-up calls since 9/11 as to the vulnerability 
of our mass transit systems to terrorist attackthe March 2004 Madrid 
attack, the July 2005 London Underground attacks; and various real and 
alleged plots aimed at New York City. The good news is that, in 
partnership with the relevant state and local officials, DHS did all the 
right things after those scares. In various cities around the country, 
especially those in the Northeast most dependent upon mass transit and 
most often targeted by terrorists, we saw increased armed police 
patrols; the use of bomb-sniffing dogs and the deployment of bomb 
detection technology; the greater use of surveillance cameras; public 
awareness campaigns; and, in some places, like New York City, random bag 
searches. The bad news is that all these measures were either scaled 
back or done away with altogether as soon as the scares faded from the 

If I were a terrorist, I would simply wait until these measures were 
relaxed or repealed and strike then. What needs to happen, of course, is 
for these measures to be institutionalized on an ongoing basis. But this 
is exceedingly costly, and DHS has been reluctant to subsidize states 
and localities recurring security costs.

Critical Infrastructure and "Soft" Targets

A number of sectors and sites in our country (the food industry, the 
energy sector, telecommunication networks; financial systems, etc.) are 
so critical to the vitality of our economy that a devastating terrorist 
attack against them would endanger the national security. Complicating 
the challenge of protecting them, about 85 percent of the nations 
critical infrastructure is owned and/or operated by private companies. 
Our nation has traditionally been relatively reluctant to regulate 
industry. These two factors, plus the lack of an attack on critical 
infrastructure, and, of course, industrys understandable unwillingness 
to regulate itself, have had the effect of limiting severely the degree 
to which critical infrastructure has been hardened since 9/11 to deter 
or defend against a terror attack.

Fortunately, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that the chemical sector 
is so vulnerable, and the consequences of an attack against it would be 
so deadly, that some degree of regulation is required. But the chemical 
sector is not unique in this regard. It is to be hoped that the new 
Congress will make regulating critical infrastructure a priority, 
recognizing that an appropriate balance must be struck between enhancing 
security and preserving private sector vitality and dynamism.

However, DHS is in no position to know which sectors and sites are most 
critical and which are most vulnerable to terrorism. That is because it 
has yet to create a creditable list of the nations most critical 
infrastructure prioritized in this fashion. Various versions of the list 
have included ludicrous things like amusement parks and petting zones, 
while omitting sites that are clearly potential terror targets like 
iconic buildings and monuments in major cities.

As for "soft" targets (shopping malls, sports arenas, movie theaters, 
restaurants, etc.), the reason that they're call "soft" is because by 
their very nature they tend to be less well protected than critical 
infrastructure. Because they are so easy to attack, because they have 
never been attacked in this country, and because an attack against them 
would probably terrorize average Americans more than an attack on a site 
thought likely to be attractive to terrorists, it is probably only a 
question of time before terrorists strike. And, paradoxically, the 
harder we harden already relatively hard targets like critical 
infrastructure, the more tempting soft targets becomes. Absent an attack 
on a soft target, it is safe to say that the public is unwilling to put 
up with the kind of draconian countermeasures (heavy police patrols, 
bomb sniffing dogs, bag searches) that are routine in Israel and 
tolerated here occasionally for clear terrorist targets like mass 
transit systems.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

If there was any doubt as to whether America was better prepared for 
another terror attack than it was on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina removed 
that doubt. If terrorists rather than Mother Nature had targeted the 
levees, the result would have been the same in terms of loss of life, 
injury, and economic damage. If we were so manifestly unprepared for a 
foreseen event like a hurricane, how prepared can we possibly be for a 
terror attack for which there is rarely precise warning?

We still lack viable evacuation plans for major cities. We still lack 
pre-positioned supplies of food, water, medicine, and pre-fabricated 
housing that can be dispatched quickly to devastated areas. We still 
lack a clear chain of command among and between different levels of 
government in the event of a crisis. And first responders are still 
unable to communicate efficiently when disaster strikes.

Making matters worse, counterterrorism funds that could be used to 
prepare communities that are most at risk of attack are still doled out 
to some degree on the basis of pork barrel politics. Indeed, in the last 
round of counterterrorism funding, money for acknowledged top terror 
targets like New York City and Washington, D.C. were actually cut by 40 
percent, while funds for less at risk cities like Omaha, Nebraska and 
Louisville, Kentucky were increased by more than 60 percent.


DHS intelligence unit, "Information Analysis," was intended to collate 
and synthesize all threat information from across government concerning 
threats against the homeland and to consolidate the dozen different 
terrorist watch lists that different government agencies maintained 
before 9/11. The lack of a central clearinghouse for homeland security 
related threat information and the lack of a consolidated watch list 
prevented the government from being aware of and acting upon the 
indications before 9/11 that such an attack was imminent.

However, the administration essentially strangled IA in its cradle by 
giving the job of synthesizing threat information to a CIA-led entity 
(initially known as the "Terrorist Threat Integration Center"; now known 
as the "National Counterterrorism Center"), and by giving the job of 
consolidating the terrorist watch lists to an FBI-led entity (the 
Terrorist Screening Center). Though DHS has representation at both the 
NCTC and the TSC, it is still the case that the CIA and the FBI 
occasionally keep "hot" information from DHS, according to the report of 
the Silberman-Robb commission on the nations recent intelligence 
failures. So the next time there are indications of a terror attack, 
chances are DHS will be the last agency to know about it, even though it 
is nominally in charge of the governments efforts to prevent such 
attacks and to respond to them.


In brief, then, more than five years after 9/11 and four years after the 
creation of the massive DHS, the nation remains an open target for 
another terror attack. To be sure, we have not been attacked in five 
years. But, this says more about terrorists ambitions and timelines than 
our preparedness. From everything we know about Al Qaeda, they want the 
next attack to be even more spectacular than the last one. The more 
spectacular the attack, the longer it takes to plan, the more it costs 
to carry out, the greater the number of operatives needed to execute it, 
and the greater the chances that something will go awry. If the good 
news in this is that we are unlikely to see many future attacks, the bad 
news is that any future attack will likely be huge in scale and 
devastating in effect.

To be sure, we can never make ourselves invulnerable to terrorism. The 
nature of terrorism is such that the odds will always be against us. 
Terrorists have to get things right only once; our counterterrorism 
efforts have to work perfectly every time. If one adds to this the wide 
range of targets in a country like the United States, and our proper 
high regard for civil rights and civil liberties, the odds against us 
only increase. But while we cannot reduce the threat of terrorism to 
zero, we can and should be significantly safer than we are.

To make ourselves as safe as possible under the circumstances, we need 
three things. First, a significant increase in homeland security 
spending, coupled with rigorous controls to ensure that additional 
dollars are not misspent the way all too many of them already have been. 
It may be possible to do certain things in government on the cheap, but, 
if so, defending the nation against terrorism is not among them. Second, 
we need leadership at every level of DHS that is expert in both 
counterterrorism and managing huge, dysfunctional bureaucracies. It is 
not just Michael "Brownie" Brown who was in over his head at DHS' FEMA. 
The department has been hampered from the very beginning by the lack of 
expert leadership at all levels. Finally, there needs to be a culture of 
openness and accountability. Only if government acknowledges problems 
can it get about the task of solving them. All too often the departments 
leaders have dug in their heels by insisting that obvious security gaps 
have been closed or, worse, that these gaps are not gaps at all. 
Terrorists know very well where we are vulnerable, and we can be assured 
that they are working overtime to exploit these vulnerabilities.

There is, fortunately, some good news on the horizon. The new Congress 
promises vigorous oversight over DHS and significantly more funding for 
homeland security initiatives. Finally, it has promised to move 
aggressively toward 100 percent inspection of air cargo for explosives 
and sea cargo for radiation, and toward allocating scarce homeland 
security dollars on the basis of risk rather than pork barrel politics. 
Of course, the proof will be in the pudding, but there is reason to 
expect that America is now on the road to becoming safer. There is, 
however, considerable work yet to do, and there is not a moment to 


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