Special Reports

America safer, but threat remains

WASHINGTON - One year after the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, Americans are safer but still far from safe.

In recent days, the top Bush administration officials charged with securing the nation at home and abroad have all cited progress but also acknowledged the continuing threat in their public comments.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has put the names of more than 300,000 foreigners with criminal records into the FBI database, so law enforcement can track them. But it still has no precise count of foreign students who have overstayed or violated their visas.

The FBI has reassigned hundreds of agents to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks and has redirected resources in an effort to prevent future ones. But the FBI director, Robert Mueller, has said that he cannot be certain that the government will thwart another attack, which many officials regard as almost certain.

The CIA is trying to recruit more agents fluent in Arabic but still has a critical shortage of sources who have actually penetrated terrorist cells. Although the FBI and the CIA have made some strides in coordinating their intelligence gathering and analysis, and more federal agencies, especially the Pentagon, are vying to collect intelligence on terrorists, rivalries among federal agencies still hobble timely analysis and coherent dissemination of the stream of overseas intelligence.

Washington is spending about $1 billion a year on programs aimed at keeping nuclear material out of terrorists' hands, but experts say the efforts are uncoordinated.

Overall, the Bush administration has sought to roughly double spending on counterterrorism efforts at home and abroad, to $45 billion next year. But President Bush has threatened to veto the Senate version of the bill creating his new Department of Homeland Security on the ground that it maintains civil service rules that he says hamstring managers' ability to fire or promote workers.

"Safer compared to what?" asked Ivo H. Daalder, an expert at the Brookings Institution here. "I would argue safer compared to Sept. 10. We are more likely to make it more difficult, but it doesn't mean we're not going to be attacked. It doesn't mean we're safe. We're not."

The nuclear threat

There is no evidence that al-Qaida has nuclear weapons, experts say. But the Cold War left the world awash in the materials and knowledge needed to create nuclear weapons, and indeed awash in the weapons themselves.

Last month, after two years of delays, the Department of Energy decided to move several tons of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium from a poorly guarded laboratory in Los Alamos to keep it from being stolen.

The same month, heavily armed Serbian troops, under the supervision of Russian, American and U.N. officials, flew 100 pounds of bomb-grade uranium from the Vinca nuclear reactor near Belgrade to Russia, where it will be blended with ordinary uranium and made unusable for weapons.

The Bush administration recently signed an agreement with Uzbekistan to remove a similar stash of dangerous fuel from the Ulugbek reactor there.

The United States spends about $1 billion a year on various programs to reduce this threat, and is deploying better sensors to detect radioactive material.

But these activities are spread among the Energy, State and Defense departments and numerous smaller agencies and laboratories, and some experts say a lack of coordination leaves the nation at risk. In June, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that a single agency be in charge of all research on nuclear terrorism.

An analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security recently concluded that al-Qaida would be capable of building a crude bomb - one that could be delivered by truck or ship - if it had the right amount of enriched uranium, about 100 pounds.

According to recent estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has produced about 1,000 tons of enriched uranium. Strategic and tactical nuclear weapons should eventually account for about 150 tons based on the cuts Russia has agreed to make in the arsenal. Russia has agreed to blend 500 tons of this enriched uranium with ordinary uranium and sell it to the United States as reactor fuel, removing it from the potential black market. But this still leaves 350 tons not covered by any agreement.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, since 1993 there have been around 400 instances of trafficking in nuclear fuel or other radioactive materials. In all about 26 pounds of enriched uranium and almost a pound of plutonium have been seized in various arrests.

Aviation

The federal government is trying to meet new deadlines set by Congress to improve screening of passengers and checked bags, but security experts inside and outside government say that even in the unlikely event that both of those goals are met this year, they will not make aviation secure enough.

The public focus has been on two milestones: by Nov. 19 all screeners at checkpoints are supposed to be replaced with federal employees. By Dec. 31, all baggage loaded into cargo holds is supposed to be checked for explosives.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said the Nov. 19 requirement for federalizing the screeners, would probably be met. He added, "We probably will have the passenger screening army in place." The baggage screening deadline may not be met, he said. But, he said, "far worse, we're losing sight of the other areas that could have great potential risk, like cargo security and the airport perimeter and general aviation."

Another hole is in the integration of intelligence information about possible plotters and then the dissemination of it.

The infrastructure

For all the attention paid to high-profile, symbolic targets like the John Hancock Tower in Chicago or the Mall of America outside Minneapolis, experts on domestic security see a far more complex challenge in the seemingly endless array of sites known as critical infrastructure.

The Golden Gate is, after all, just one of 590,984 bridges around the nation. There is one Hoover Dam, but 54,065 public and private water systems. Eighty-five deep-draft ports. One hundred and three nuclear power plants. Untold miles of highways, railroads, underground tunnels and oil pipelines, innumerable electricity grids and telecommunications hubs, each vulnerable to attacks with the potential to disrupt commerce if not endanger lives.

But vulnerability assessments of the water systems will not be complete until next year. Port authorities received only 13 percent of the $700 million in federal grants they requested for security measures. In Boston, inspection of cargo containers at the harbor has tripled, but is still only 15 percent.

Immigration

With a heightened priority on tightening the nation's borders, few federal agencies have faced as much scrutiny since Sept. 11 as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Long saddled with a reputation for antiquated computers and staggering paperwork backlogs, the agency increased the scrutiny of foreigners entering the United States after the attacks.

The immigration service is working more closely with the Treasury Department and the FBI to track possible terrorists. Inspectors at ports and other border crossings now have access to the State Department's consular database to prevent visa fraud.

To crack down on foreigners who remain in the United States despite deportation orders, the agency has entered the names of 314,000 criminal aliens into the FBI's database so local police officers can identify them.

But the immigration service still has no firm data on how many foreign students have overstayed or violated their visas - despite a 1996 law requiring a tracking system for the 547,000 people holding student visas. A computer network to track foreign students is expected to be doing the job early next year.

As part of the effort to screen out potential terrorists, new Justice Department regulations will take effect beginning Sept. 11 that ultimately would require some 100,000 foreign students, tourists, researchers and other visitors to register with the federal government, officials said.

The Justice Department has issued new rules that allow the attorney general to authorize state or local law enforcement officers to track down illegal immigrants.

The Justice Department also decided to start enforcing a 50-year-old law that requires immigrants to report their change of address to the immigration service within 10 days of moving. But in July, the INS acknowledged that 200,000 change of address forms were sitting in boxes in underground storage facilities.

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