Guarding America

Washington has yet to demonstrate that it has a handle on security

In Afghanistan, an intensified military campaign is under way, with signs pointing to a key push against the Taliban. But despite the incendiary images dominating TV screens, Americans these days seem more worried about the safety of Main Street, USA, than a distant drive on Mazar-e-Sharif.

Weeks of government warnings about new terrorist threats, a less-than-stellar Administration response to anthrax attacks, and signs of disorganization in the new Office of Homeland Security have taken a toll on public confidence. The result: rattled nerves and rising complaints about Washington's efforts to protect Americans from a reprise of September 11. In a Nov. 2-4 CNN/Gallup Poll, 7 out of 10 Americans said the White House response to the internal terror threat was appropriate. But do folks feel safer? Not exactly. By roughly the same margin--74%--they are bracing for new attacks.

Why the pessimism? The Administration's monthlong drive to launch a sweeping homeland defense effort hasn't convinced many that the nation's basic infrastructure--from the mail system to airlines to key commercial facilities--is secure from future assaults by an educated, inventive, and diabolical enemy.

Reasons for anxiety aren't hard to find. The man who nearly boarded a United Airlines flight at Chicago O'Hare Airport with seven knives, a stun gun, and a can of Mace underscored a sense that the security effort is lagging. The false alarm a few days earlier over threats to California's bridges had a similar effect.

In an open society, it's difficult to shield targets from Al Qaeda agents who don't mind dying. But "difficult" doesn't mean "impossible," and sources familiar with the Administration's anti-terror campaign say the machinery is moving slowly. The anthrax shock also sapped the attention of key aides such as former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security. In a Nov. 6 interview, Ridge conceded the bio-blitz consumed much of his first month on the job.

That attack was unforeseen, but other woes seem of the Administration's own making. Mindful of a revolt by House GOP hardliners, the White House has been enmeshed in a purely ideological battle over a Democratic-backed bill to federalize airport security. But while Washington argues, scares such as the O'Hare incident signal to the rest of the country that big holes remain. "Much of what has been done since September 11 is show rather than substance," asserts former American Airlines CEO Robert L. Crandall. "There has got to be a comprehensive [security] plan administered by a single agency with absolute authority."

But that's precisely the kind of centralization the President wants to skirt. White House officials believe that in a decentralized New Economy, information is power, and targeted communication will produce the kind of security clampdown that's needed. So rather than an intensive, government-led mobilization, the Bush team intends to proceed in stages: Stage I entails heightened alerts on the part of business, governors, and law-enforcement officials; Stage II requires massive consultation with CEOs and state leaders on a voluntary national action plan; Stage III, according to Ridge, would direct states found to be wanting on security plans or crisis response to meet a minimum "standard of preparedness."

But critics--among them execs--wonder if terrorism really can be fought in a decentralized way. Moreover, while many local communities and companies have stepped-up security, there is still little sense outside Washington that the federal government has an overall strategy to deter terrorism at home. Some see the need for more of a traditional wartime mobilization. Partha Ghosh, vice-president of Boston-based Adventis consulting group, urges a nationwide database to track immigrants, financial transactions, and even government-intercepted phone calls. The effort would be overseen by a powerful crisis manager modeled on Bernard Baruch, Woodrow Wilson's domestic war czar. Warns Joseph S. Nye Jr., Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government: "There are certain things that can devolve to corporations, but as we saw with airline security, that doesn't always work."

Ridge, however, defends the bottom-up approach. "It's a very innovative, decentralized economy we have," he says. "There are already companies that have been thinking about potential problems and solutions."

STILL EARLY. One thing to keep in mind as the debate between the command-and-control advocates and New Federalists rages: It's still early in a mobilization that will take at least a year to unfold. And despite a halting start, headway is being made. Acting at the behest of Washington, governors are taking extraordinary measures to increase policing of potential targets, often working state troopers and National Guardsmen to the point of exhaustion. Also, there are signs the Administration's attempts to create informal brain trusts of anti-terror resources in industry and academia may be bearing fruit. As a result, many in the tech and scientific communities are going all-out on counterterror research with the blessing of Washington.

Case in point: William Ditto. The Georgia Institute of Technology biochemist isn't waiting for a government grant. He's at work on a sensor to detect anthrax and other deadly bioterror agents. He's relying on verbal assurances from state and federal officials that "they'll write us a blank check if we have a decent approach to this."

Drug companies are also making key contributions to the anti-terror drive. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY ) has offered to form a 25-person bioterrorism team to be used by the government as it sees fit. Eli Lilly (LLY ) is asking the government to test a scientist's hunch that an existing anticancer drug might also be used to fight smallpox. And by early November, the Health & Human Services Dept. (HHS) is expected to cut a deal with drugmakers to produce 250 million doses of smallpox vaccine--enough to inoculate virtually all Americans. "I don't think it is possible to drive a government contracting effort much faster than they did," says one top public health expert.

Still, there's an immense amount of work to be done on bioterror defenses. The key challenge is "strengthening the public heath infrastructure," says Dr. D.A. Henderson, head of a new office at HHS that coordinates planning for bio-terror attacks. U.S. hospitals have little extra capacity, while health departments can't even keep up with routine disease outbreaks, he notes.

That's why the Administration will need to go beyond industry pow-wows and commit big bucks to solve the problems. Key needs: improving communications among federal, state, and local health authorities; stockpiling vaccines and drugs; honing responses to massive medical emergencies; and funding new detection technologies. William A. Haseltine, CEO of Human Genome Sciences in Rockville, Md., advocates a 10- to 15-year Manhattan Project-like attempt to find vaccines and antidotes for nearly every conceivable germ.

Another key concern: nuclear reactors that loom as inviting targets for kamikaze raids. A Nov. 6 report given to Ridge by representatives of the energy industry concluded "the bulk of our energy infrastructure is highly vulnerable to an attack," says Rob Housman, an industry lawyer. Most vulnerable are the 103 commercial nuke plants scattered around the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responded by ordering stepped-up patrols and a hurry-up review of plant security by yearend. And the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a 12 mile no-fly zone around reactors.

At Exelon Corp.'s (EXC ) nuke plants in Illinois and the Philadelphia area, the company has added a new ring of security personnel, inspected packages, installed surveillance cameras and motion-detectors, and run background checks on temporary workers. Still, says President and co-CEO John Rowe: "We all know that this is a very vulnerable society. In many of our basic infrastructure areas, absolute protection is impossible."

How can nuclear power be made more secure? Storing spent fuel in a permanent underground repository in Nevada would make sense, but the idea has long faced local opposition. Also, some reactor housings will have to be hardened to protect them from air attack. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Theodore A. Postol suggests a picket fence-like grid that can deflect the force of an aircraft.

STOPGAPS. Urban infrastructure--buildings, arenas, bridges, and the like--pose other concerns. For now, policing has been massively increased, but that leaves many localities struggling with the burden. West Virginia Governor Bob Wise has ordered all hazardous material trucks to be stopped and inspected on the border. "How long can you sustain this?" wonders Wise. Connecticut, with two nuke facilities and a submarine base, has state police on a T1 alert. "That means the entire force can show up at any location in an hour," says Governor John Rowland. "Who the heck knows what terrorists are thinking?" Beleaguered state officials across the country say they can provide stopgap help, but Washington has to provide more funds.

Industry experts also feel more has to be done to combat cyber terrorism, since the Web is an inviting target. Even before September 11, 85% of companies surveyed in 2001 by the Computer Security Institute and the FBI reported computer breaches. That's one reason Richard Clarke, special adviser to the president for cyberspace security, was knocking on Silicon Valley doors last month, picking the brains of execs at such outfits as Cisco Systems (CSCO ), Intel (INTC ), Symantec (SYMC ), and Network Associates (NETA ) in hopes of finding solutions. "The barometers of Internet security are all in the red," says Bill Conner, CEO of Dallas-based security outfit Entrust. On Nov. 8, his company was set to pitch the government on the building of secure Net links among federal, state, and local agencies via an encryption technology now in the test stage.

Other weak spots? Porous borders. Lax immigration enforcement. Spotty intelligence-sharing among the CIA, FBI, and local cops. The list seems endless, which is one reason Ridge says that his new anti-terror agency will soon grow into a 100-person enterprise.

The hope, say business leaders, is that Congress and the White House respond to these enormous challenges with the kind of initial flexibility shown in the aftermath of September 11--a spirit almost erased now in the partisan squabbling that poisons the capital. Many hope this is another case where common sense will trump ideology. But as the Administration's war against domestic terror slowly unfolds, there's little evidence so far that those desires will turn into reality.

By Paul Magnusson, with Amy Borrus and Laura Cohn in Washington, Amy Barrett in Philadelphia, Geoff Smith in Boston, Michael Arndt in Chicago, Wendy Zellner in Dallas, and bureau reports

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