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How to Make America Safer

Want to know what's wrong with the homeland security effort? Take the executive order signed by President Bush last February that directs the Homeland Security Dept. to seize any vessel in U.S. waters if the boat "may be used, or is susceptible of being used, for voyage into Cuban waters."

Aside from the order being a possible violation of the Bill of Rights, and the blatant election-year appeal for the anti-Castro, Cuban-American vote in South Florida, consider this: No boats have yet been seized under the order, yet the U.S. Coast Guard has had to draw up regulations and enlist cash-strapped local police departments and harbor patrols in the effort. Launching an armada against a few retired couples hoping for a weekend sail to Havana diverts law enforcement from catching polluters, drug smugglers, illegal aliens, and maybe a few real terrorists.

Americans all may feel a little safer since September 11, thanks in part to stepped-up efforts by security and intelligence agencies. But unfortunately, the effort has been marred too often by misplaced priorities, poor execution, and a process sometimes controlled by politics rather than smart policy. Because no major terrorist incident has occurred in the U.S. since September 11, the sense of urgency has dissipated.

That could be dangerous. Ask any terrorism expert in or out of government, and most will tell you that it's almost certain that enemies of America will launch another attack. So it's time for a checklist of what still must be done to make the country safer in an increasingly dangerous world. Here's how to address the key remaining problem areas:

An immigration policy that distinguishes terrorists from legal aliens: No government agency was as conflicted as the former U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service, now wisely separated into enforcement and citizenship-service branches, and placed within the Homeland Security Dept. (Remember when the INS issued post-mortem visa extensions to several of the September 11 attackers after their suicide missions?) Yet, Congress and the White House still can't agree on the magnitude of the threat posed by illegal immigration, or even if federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies ought to be coordinating their efforts to stop it.

It may surprise you to learn that, even today, a green-card lottery system assigns 55,000 work permits each year to foreign nationals whose countries are underrepresented in the U.S. Recipients this year included 2,600 people from Sudan, Iran, and Syria -- countries identified by the State Dept. as sponsors of international terrorism. Even State acknowledges that the lottery program "can be taken advantage of by hostile intelligence officers or terrorists." That's hardly reassuring.

As Homeland Security attempts to construct a so-called "virtual border" around the U.S., a new tracking system, U.S.-VISIT, already authenticates the identity of visitors holding visas through digital photos and finger scans. U.S. authorities can now determine whether these visitors are who they say they are.nd ultimately, the system should be able to alert authorities when visitors have overstayed their visas. When combined with watchlists and other databases, police may obtain valuable tips on potential terrorists.

Still, after decades of neglect in enforcement of immigration laws, techniques for separating terrorists from tourists and villains from visa holders are still rudimentary.

In technology we trust: America's strength in research and innovation is crucial. The burgeoning field of biometrics -- voice, iris, and fingerprint recognition, for example -- is making passports, drivers licenses, and workplace-security identification much harder to counterfeit. But matching solutions to vulnerabilities is difficult. And an unwieldy process of government homeland security procurement could stifle innovation.

One model is a small, 20-year-old interagency committee in Washington called the Technical Support Working Group that solicits ideas to solve specific problems, such as bomb detection and hostage rescue, and then funds specific development projects. The government needs many more such problem-solving, rapid-response efforts such as the TSWG, coordinated through Homeland Security.

Thank you, George Tenet, now please step aside: It's time for a top-to-bottom revamping of the U.S. intelligence community, starting at the CIA in Langley, Va. Counterterrorism intelligence is the single most efficient way of protecting the homeland, next to better immigration control. But the CIA switchover from Cold War information-gathering and analysis to on-the-ground infiltration of terrorist cells and hostile governments has been hampered by mismanagement at the top.

Satellites and supercomputers are cool technologies, but dropping a single Hellfire missile from a CIA Predator drone onto Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein's motorcade could have saved a lot of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Had the CIA analysts correctly calculated that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, that Iraqis wouldn't welcome U.S. soldiers with flowers and parades, and Iraq oil couldn't pay for it all, would Congress have voted to invade in the first place?

To his credit, Tenet has been open and outspoken at times about the capabilities and failures of existing intelligence. But it's time for the CIA director to remove himself and let intelligence-gathering move into a new era.

Fine-tune the Patriot Act: A panicky Congress rushed the law through without much deliberation a month after 9/11. Naturally, it has flaws. Congress should get rid of the secret, warrantless, no-knock searches of library, bookstore, medical, credit, education, insurance, and Internet records on American citizens. But policymakers should keep the law's sensible provisions, such as the roving wiretaps that allow law enforcement to surveil individuals even if they keep changing cell phones.

No industry group security plan should be above government scrutiny: ome businesses, such as information technology, cruise lines, food importers, and chemical makers, have persuaded Washington to take a hands-off approach in favor of self-regulation. That's not working in some cases. The chemical industry is just as likely to be the target of a terrorist attack as the U.S. nuclear power industry. Yet, nuclear power is heavily regulated, while chemicals get hardly any.

Yes, the IT industry seems to be acting more responsibly to confront cyberterrorism, probably because it already has to deal daily with computer hackers and identity thieves. But just because an industry is large and politically powerful shouldn't exempt it from government oversight.

Make sure the risk assessment matches the real risk: Congress is considering a bill to outfit all 6,800 U.S. commercial airliners with a defense system against a shoulder-fired rocket. The cost over 20 years of reengineering and retrofitting: $150 billion, 10 times the amount of the airline industry bailout in 2001. Never mind that no commercial airliner has ever been brought down by one of these weapons.

What makes this expensive plan even more dubious is the ready availability in the U.S. of .50 caliber rifles that can fire armor-piercing rounds easily capable of penetrating an aircraft (or chemical storage tank or truck) even at 1,000 yards. This is the same caliber bullet used by aircraft in dogfights throughout World War II and Korea. No doubt, the airline industry remains threatened. But throwing money at the problem isn't the solution.

Congress, reform thyself: Creating a select committee in the House of Representatives to oversee creation of the Homeland Security Dept. was an excellent idea, with experienced and knowledgeable legislators overseeing the many-faceted area of counterterrorism. But the authorization for the panel is about to expire. This committee needs to be made permanent and replicated in the Senate. Otherwise, congressional authority will revert to the previous iteration when dozens of committees had responsibility for the 22 agencies that now make up Homeland Security.

And while lawmakers are at it, they should create a nonpartisan congressional research agency, similar to the Congressional Budget Office, to evaluate Homeland Security priorities. That will ensure that the usual pork-barrel politics don't divert money meant to fight terrorism from real targets such as Washington and New York to rural fire departments in Idaho and Alaska. Sometimes Congress, too, has to be protected from itself. Commentary by Paul Magnusson in Washington, D.C.

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