Randall J. Larsen was briefing Vice-President Dick Cheney on homeland security last year when the Vice-President asked him what, exactly, does a bioweapon look like? Larsen, an expert on terrorism, reached into his pocket and pulled out a test tube filled with bacteria spores that had been "weaponized" -- pulverized into easily inhaled particles. "The Secret Service was not amused," recalls Larsen, who carries the vial to briefings to make a point: The U.S. still isn't fully aware of its many vulnerabilities.
Two and a half years without a major terrorist attack at home have left Americans feeling more confident about their security. But the March 11 attack in Madrid that claimed more than 200 lives has renewed fears that al Qaeda remains capable of finding and attacking the weak spots. That has kicked off a debate over whether the USA Patriot Act, airport shoe inspections, two foreign wars, and a reorganization of the government's homeland security efforts have reduced the threat to the nation that Osama bin Laden regards as target No. 1.
The verdict: We could do a lot better. Competing political and economic forces have created a mishmash of odd priorities and security gaps. Most obvious is the difference between tight airport security and the total lack of screening on America's trains. Scanning all railroad baggage and passengers for weapons and explosives, airport-style, and securing 22,000 miles of passenger track "just isn't feasible," says an Amtrak spokesman. But improvements are in the works. Amtrak, for example, has added bomb-sniffing dogs and is spending $1 billion to improve safety at six New York train tunnels. While that's a start, better security for the country as a whole will require more sweeping measures and smarter strategies. Among the steps that could help:
ADOPT TECHNO-FIXES: Three years after the September 11 hijackers evaded detection by immigration and intelligence authorities, federal agencies protecting the border still can't compare visitors' fingerprints with an FBI criminal and terrorist database. Consolidating 12 different databases from nine separate agencies isn't easy, but it's vital. Similarly, airline cargo still isn't being screened for explosives. But blastproof cargo containers, an available technology, could provide an interim step. Even more important, the use of advanced biometrics, such as fingerprint or retinal scans, on passports and visas and the introduction of a computer system to track entries and exits from the U.S. have been delayed far too long. Says Richard Williams, a security consultant with Stafford (Va.)'s Three Worlds, "We are missing critical elements of our technology."
RANK THE THREATS: Al Qaeda sets its sights on big targets and spectacular body counts. "It's a stupid approach, because those attacks are harder to plan, harder to coordinate, and easier to stop," says William F. Wechsler, a former White House terrorism expert. So the U.S. should focus on preventing attacks that would produce the biggest casualties. That means halting the international black market trade in nuclear bomb components, which could end up in the hands of terrorists. Similarly, radioactive components at hospitals used to detect and treat illnesses such as cancer need to be better secured against theft so that they can't be fashioned into dirty bombs.
REGULATE RISKY BUSINESS: Vulnerable businesses, such as the chemical and food-processing industries, have lobbied intensely -- and successfully -- to avoid such safety measures as submitting to strict inspections. And Congress and the Administration have largely adopted a hands-off approach to imposing such standards, preferring voluntary industry measures instead. But that approach hasn't worked.
No sector is more vulnerable to a catastrophic terrorist attack than the chemical industry. Though the industry argues it can manage safety issues on its own, many critics contend it has given short shrift to anti-terrorism planning. That's worrisome because the Environmental Protection Agency has said that a bomb attack on just one of any of 123 chemical facilities in the country could result in a staggering one million deaths downwind. "It is the most extreme example of industry special interests defeating the public good," says economist Peter R. Orszag at the Brookings Institution. Like the heavily regulated nuclear industry, chemical manufacturers and handlers should be required to dramatically enhance their protections. That could require some federal aid, much as Washington has aided airlines with $15 billion in loan guarantees and grants.
EXPAND INTELLIGENCE: The most efficient dollars are spent on stopping terrorists before they enter the U.S. or before they can assemble their weapons and conspirators. "The weapons are already here -- Mohammed Atta and Timothy McVeigh showed that," says Larsen. "What we need to screen against are the people." That requires cooperation between federal agencies and 650,000 local and state cops, who should also be tied into federal databases on terrorism. Local police have to get smarter, too. Chicago and many other cities should stop prohibiting their police from checking immigration status.
Of course, Washington could overdo it. Civil libertarians are rightfully wary of computer databases falsely implicating people as possible terrorists. Businesses fear the loss of competitiveness that comes from higher security costs and inefficient mandates. "We could spend every last nickel of our gross national product trying to make ourselves more secure," warns Jamie Gorelick, a member of the blue-ribbon federal panel investigating the September 11 attacks.
But if America is to remain a free, prosperous, and open society, it will have to reassess the risks and adjust to new circumstances. The U.S. can't afford to break the bank on security. But it can't afford to ignore the hidden threats, either. That's the hard lesson of Larsen's tiny test tube -- and of Madrid.
By Paul Magnusson, with Lorraine Woellert, Stan Crock, and Mike McNamee in Washington