After 9/11 are we any safer?

Author: Dan Lindley

On September 11, 2001 almost 3,000 people were killed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Are we any safer in 2009?

One answer is, who knows? One noted political scientist speaking at a recent conference estimated the odds of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon as greater than 3 billion to one. In a recent book, however, another highly respected political scientist puts the odds at greater than 50 percent within the next 10 years. Similarly grim, an April 2009 BBC report said American intelligence agencies believe a “dirty bomb” strike, in which radioactive material is scattered by a conventional explosion, is “inevitable” in a major city within the next five years.

So the question of safety is anyone’s guess. One would hope that the tragedy of 9/11 would have galvanized us to action. That attack should have resulted in at least three silver linings, or responses, that would have made us and the world safer.

The first is that improved homeland security — disaster prevention and response — would become a priority. The second silver lining is that the destruction of Al Qaeda should have become a top priority. Third and finally, 9/11 should have catalyzed efforts limit nuclear/WMD proliferation.

How well did the United States realize these three potential benefits of 9/11?

Regarding the first silver lining, the bag is mixed. Unquestionably there have been improvements in homeland security since 9/11. Security at airports and large public events such as at football games has increased, as anyone going through a checkpoint knows. Also, public health tracking measures have improved markedly. I doubt you would have seen the swine flu tracked as precisely now as it has been were it not for post-9/11 initiatives.

The security of our sea ports also is better, but marginally. Radiation detection capabilities have been enhanced, and we now have inspection of some ships in foreign ports bound for the United States. But the agency in charge has not implemented long-term plans to expand detection capabilities.

As much progress as has been made, however, far too many vulnerabilities remain. In troubling news, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year reported that two of the nation’s five “bio-security level 4” national laboratories — those dealing with the most hazardous bio materials — had inadequate perimeter security in place.

Meanwhile the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has lagged in implementing policies developed in response to 9/11. Nearly 70 percent of the agency’s policies have not been implemented. For instance many local first responders, such as fire departments, do not have the detectors they would need to instantly identify, measure and track released chemical, biological or radiological materials.

Currently the nation’s system to detect bioattacks employs techniques that require several hours to a day to identify a hazardous biological agent. The amount and direction of the plume cannot be determined.

A similar danger comes from the U.S. chemical industry, which is woefully insecure. There are in the United States some 123 chemical facilities that, if effectively attacked, could release sufficient toxic material to potentially cause 1 million casualties (killed and wounded) or more. Safety has been hard to come by because of the political influence of the chemical industry, which fears imposed regulations and higher costs. But can not the government help incentivize the shift to a safer chemical industry?

The security of civilian U.S. nuclear facilities is worrisome as well. At any given time, according to published reports, there are only from five to 10 security officers on duty at each nuclear plant. But how many people would be involved in a surprise attack? And why do practice attacks involve advance warning, making nuclear plants seem falsely secure?

Many of the problems identified here reflect bureaucratic inertia or other impediments to implementation. Yet that also means that many of these initiatives were simply not high priorities, even after 9/11.

As far as the second silver lining, the destruction of Al Qaeda, we have made disappointing progress. Eight years later, the terrorist organization appears to be alive and well, if not thriving. A 2007 U.S. government report concluded that Al Qaeda was at its strongest since 9/11. Recent Predator strikes and other activities may have eroded their strength, but it is troubling that so long after 9/11 Al Qaeda seems strong. Has the war in Iraq taken our eyes off the prize and been a distraction from the central goal of neutralizing Al Qaeda?

Finally, 9/11 should have been a wakeup call to get serious about securing the world’s nuclear material, but here again we seem to have taken our eyes off the prize. According to an April 2009 BBC report, somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of all dangerous nuclear material in the former Soviet Union remains unsecured and vulnerable to theft. There is dangerous instability in Pakistan, which has perhaps between 60 and 100 nuclear weapons.

So what are we to think? In a post 9/11 world are we safer? I’m sorry to say it’s difficult for me to be optimistic. The overall trend is that destructive power is increasing and diffusing. The ability to make nuclear and biological weapons is going up. But this threat is not met by worthy responses to control these threats. We are losing the capabilities of destructiveness vs. control of destructiveness race.

If this assessment is correct, then the logical conclusion is that something like 9/11 or worse is likely to happen. The challenge we all face is to try our best to prevent that. We must grasp those three silver linings the tragedy of 9/11 left us with. So far we’ve failed to do that very well. Our future demands we do better. On the day after a bad disaster, how will we answer the questions: did we do all we can to prevent it? And were we well prepared to ameliorate its consequences? Right now, the answer is frightening.

Dan Lindley is a Notre Dame associate professor of political science and the author of Promoting Peace with Information: Transparency and the Effectiveness of Security Regimes, Princeton University Press, 2007.This essay is based on a lecture Professor Lindley gave to a meeting of the League of Women Voters in South Bend on September 11, 2009.