Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Risk of Terror Attack Still High, Panel Told

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Six years after 9/11, the nation remains at high risk of another attack. That was the message today from top intelligence and Homeland Security officials. Speaking before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, they said many improvements have been made in security, but they are concerned that the country is becoming complacent.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The intelligence officials said almost in unison what they've been saying for months now, that the country is safer than it was before 9/11, but that recent arrests of suspected terrorists in Germany and elsewhere show that the threat is still very real.

Here's director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell.

Mr. MICHAEL McCONNELL (Director, National Intelligence): We assess that al-Qaida is planning to attack the homeland, is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties.

FESSLER: And National Counterterrorism Center Director Scott Redd.

Mr. SCOTT REDD (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): We are in a long war. And our enemy is determined and dangerous.

FESSLER: And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): They have not lost interest. And if we allow ourselves to become complacent and to think that the threat has diminished, we're going to be crippling ourselves in our ability to prevent future attacks.

FESSLER: Chertoff, for one, has been frustrated recently because lawmakers and others have pushed to delay new security measures, such as secured driver's licenses. For his part, McConnell warned against putting limits on the government's ability to monitor the phone calls of suspected terrorists. Congress extended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this summer. But some lawmakers want to add restrictions because of civil liberties concerns.

Mr. McCONNELL: If we lose FISA, we will lose, my estimate, 50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists, what they're doing to train, what they're doing to recruit, and what they're doing to try to get into this country.

FESSLER: McConnell credited the law with helping authorities to link suspected terrorists recently arrested in Germany to al-Qaida. Committee members were sympathetic. They also agreed with the officials on the seriousness of the threat, but questioned whether enough has been done.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): We are safer, but there are still gaping holes.

FESSLER: Claire McCaskill is a Democrat from Missouri.

Sen. McCASKILL: There are still major problems, whether it's communication, whether it's technology, whether it's the struggle for ideas that we seem to be failing at around the world.

FESSLER: She said one especially vexing area is aviation security, which often doesn't seem to make sense.

Sen. McCASKILL: I was on a flight just yesterday where mothers were comparing notes. Well, I got my apple juice through. Did you get your apple juice through?

FESSLER: Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said no system is perfect, but that his agency has tried to come up with consistent rules for carrying liquids on board, at least until the government finds machines that can accurately detect liquid explosives.

Sec. CHERTOFF: The general rule is if it pours or smears, it's a liquid and it has to go in that plastic bag.

FESSLER: Maine Republican Susan Collins also complained about the continued inaccuracy of lists the government uses to track potential terrorists, preventing some people from flying or entering the country.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): All of us have had examples of constituents who have been on the list because their name is similar from someone, to someone who should be on the list.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): As is often the case, it's a question of money and personnel. And we are putting money and personnel into assuring and upgrading our quality assurance.

FESSLER: FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency is working to eliminate the inaccuracies, but that it's not always easy. He and the other officials said the real improvement since 9/11 is that they're all doing a much better job working together and sharing information. But even there, McConnell said, the agencies could do better.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.