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Nation Moves On, Safer if Uncertain

Security: Lack of funds may become the key barrier to protecting Americans.


WASHINGTON — Twelve months ago, the United States had done so little to protect itself from terrorists that airlines routinely left cockpit doors agape and Saudi Arabian travel agents issued U.S. visas.

Shocked by Sept. 11, the nation reacted with a reflexive outpouring of energy and alarm not seen since the dawn of the Cold War, with its threats of communist subversion and nuclear holocaust.

Security initiatives were launched of every shape and kind. And today, while gaping holes remain in anti-terrorist defenses, Americans are significantly safer, especially in air travel, than they were when 19 Al Qaeda agents could claim more than 3,000 lives in a single morning.

In the nation's response to Sept. 11, that was phase one.

Now comes phase two, and it will be harder--a race against time and ourselves.

"We've succeeded in raising the bar for anyone with hostile intentions toward Americans, American infrastructure or American transportation," says Gerald Kauvar, who headed the President's Commission on Aviation Security in the mid-1990s.

Over the next decade, demands for government spending on terrorism could exceed $600 billion. By comparison, the entire Apollo space program that put men on the moon cost only $140 billion in today's dollars. The Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb cost $200 billion.

Spending $600 billion on homeland security would almost certainly mean prolonged federal deficits and reductions in popular government programs. In the private economy, less money would be available for new technology and other productive investments of the kinds that helped fuel record prosperity after the Cold War.

But experts say change is necessary. The nation is not as safe as it needs to be in many areas, including cyber-terrorism and bioterrorism, areas that intelligence suggests Al Qaeda has been exploring.

A Matter of Choices

As a result, with money clearly limited and other priorities reasserting themselves, phase two is about choices: tough apples-and-oranges choices between competing security needs, such as your neighborhood nuclear power plant versus my airport or hospital.

"I don't think we can just keep pouring it on," warns William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and the CIA. "If we overload the system with high-cost, nonproductive devices, we're more likely to see the system fall away."

Increasingly, homeland security must compete with the other things Americans also need and want: economic growth, better schools, prescription drug benefits for the elderly and the old freedom to live without government interference.

If decision-makers do not begin to weigh competing needs more carefully and consider where best to spend limited resources, money and public support could decline before the essential work is finished.

That would leave a patchwork of partial defenses, all the more dangerous because they would encourage a false sense of security and offer little more real protection than a flood wall with sections missing.

So far, government action has been driven primarily by public pressures and doing what came easiest.

"There was a lot of low-hanging fruit you could pluck rather easily, and we're certainly in the process of doing that," says David Langstaff, head of Veridian Corp., which does high-tech security work for the CIA and others.

But most of what remains to be done is more challenging, and it comes with higher economic and social costs.

For example, the new Transportation Security Administration has been so preoccupied with air travel that it has paid relatively little attention to the far bigger challenge of securing the 6.5 million cargo containers that sail into the heart of America's port cities each year.

Similarly, while state and federal officials have been busy drafting plans for meeting bioterrorist attacks, most of the 3.5 million police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other first responders have received no more than what one federal official called "basic awareness classes."

The pattern of good but incomplete beginnings can be seen almost everywhere.

More than half the 30,000-plus screeners who check passengers and carry-on luggage at airports now work for the federal government, not rent-a-cop firms. They meet higher qualification standards. They are also finding a dismaying number of guns in carry-on luggage, most belonging to police officers and others authorized to carry weapons who forgot to check them properly.

Weapons Get Through

Nonetheless, tests by federal agents this summer succeeded in sneaking guns and explosive devices past the screeners 25% of the time, on average.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, says it will take an additional three years to make commercial aviation safe.

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