We may be safer, but we're not safe enough

June 14, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is finding herself in hot water. In response to a question during last week's Democratic presidential debate about whether the Bush administration deserves any credit for the fact that there has been no terror attack on American soil since Sept, 11, 2001, Clinton said, "I believe we are safer than we were." To be sure, she went on to say, "we are not yet safe enough," but it was her willingness to acknowledge that some steps have been taken in the last six years to make the homeland more secure that drew fire, particularly from contender John Edwards, who dismissed the war on terror as a mere "bumper sticker."

Who got it right? As is so often the case with policy debates in Washington, there's an element of truth in the claims of each side. Clinton is right in that we have closed some of the holes in our nation's counterterrorism defenses. This is particularly true in the area of aviation. Airport screeners are now federalized and better trained. Cockpit doors have been hardened. Some pilots are armed. The number of air marshals has increased exponentially. And so on.

But numerous security gaps remain, as recent events highlight. The alleged terror plot to blow up fuel tanks, pipelines and terminals at John F. Kennedy International Airport underscores how little we know about who works in the most sensitive areas of our airports. Background checks on baggage and cargo handlers, mechanics, maintenance workers, cleaning crews and caterers are spotty at best. These workers are rarely, if ever, screened at checkpoints for weapons and explosives before they access tarmacs and airplanes. A biometrics-based tamper-proof ID card for transportation workers still is in the development stage.

And the alleged plot to kill soldiers at Ft. Dix, N.J., shows that the threat of "homegrown" terrorism is deeply embedded into the fabric of American society and, perhaps, even growing.

The decision by a customs inspector at a border crossing in upstate New York to let a man known to be infected with a highly drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis into the country despite instructions to detain him suggests that a bioterrorist could enter the United States even when the Department of Homeland Security has reason to believe the individual may pose a danger.

So, we are better protected than we were prior to Sept. 11. Indeed, how could it be otherwise, if our government has done anything at all. But are we as safe as we can be, as safe as we need to be, as safe as the administration has led us to believe we are? The answer, ominously, is no.

That said, the other Democratic candidates also were on to something. No, the war on terror is not a mere bumper sticker. Terrorists are at war with us, so we had better be at war with them.

As former CIA chief Porter Goss put it, "Iraq is not the cause of extremism, but it has become a cause for extremists." And, beyond Iraq, our entire approach to foreign policy in the last six years -- the unilateralism, the militarism -- has served to create more terrorists than we could ever manage to capture or kill.

How, then, to square the circle? How could Clinton and her rivals all be right, and why does it matter? The answer is that we should distinguish between two admittedly related, but fundamentally different, things. First, there is our vulnerability to terrorism. By virtue of the baby steps that have been taken since Sept. 11, we are marginally less vulnerable today to another attack on our soil. But "marginally less" is not "less enough."

Second, there is the threat of terrorism. Thanks to Iraq, in particular, and our disastrous approach to foreign policy in general, we have become a hapless hulking Gulliver weighed down to the point of near immobilization by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Lilliputians.

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