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America:  Safer Than Ever, But Still Vulnerable

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Terrorism “has become the challenge and the calling of our generation” said Michael Chertoff, the new secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security during his recent swearing-in ceremony. Created just over two years ago, the department is charged with protecting the United States from conventional and unconventional attacks as well as natural disasters. It coordinates the work of 22 different government agencies and about 180-thousand employees and has a budget of more than 30-billion dollars a year.

David Heyman, director of the homeland-security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the Homeland Security Department is charged with protecting the main infrastructure such as energy, water, industry, communications and transportation. It has additional tasks.

“The Department has a particular function for providing funding to states and cities to prepare against terrorist attacks. It provides some funding for specific cities – cities that might be at particular risk of terrorist attack,” says Mr. Heyman.

Those cities and states considered to be at more risk are entitled to more funds. Thus, there is special funding for the region of the national capital, a likely terrorist target. Some grants go to so-called “first responders,” such as police and firefighters to develop means of dealing with chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological attacks. Other funds are used to anticipate and treat illness resulting from such attacks. David Heyman says the department is also attempting to educate the general public on how to recognize and deflect acts of terrorism. As a result, he says, America is now better prepared for a possible attack than it was in 2001.

“There’s no question that the department has raised the awareness to the citizens of the threat. They’ve developed systems by which the state and local governments can coordinate if there is an attack, says Mr. heyman. "There are initiatives to protect containers, for example, from coming into this country containing material or people that could be harmful to us, new systems for the flow of citizens back and forth -- or visitors from other countries into this country: border security. There are a number of initiatives that are on the way.”

But critics say America remains vulnerable. In a recent issue of “The Atlantic Monthly” magazine, former presidential anti-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke describes a variety of attacks that could occur in this decade. They might be suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos; simultaneous bombings of large shopping malls across America; or assaults on crowded underground trains and chemical, biological and nuclear facilities; or cyber attacks on crucial American financial institutions. Large installations are reasonably protected, says Daniel Hamilton, professor of international studies at Johns Hopkins University. The greater danger stems from smaller, potentially lethal attacks for which Americans are not prepared.

“The anthrax envelopes that were discovered in the US Senate some years ago – each had spores to kill hundreds of thousands of people. They are very tiny and can be transported anywhere. It’s different than a ballistic missile or a nuclear bomb. These are things that could be in a briefcase.” TEXT: Professor Hamilton says with the availability of hazardous material, one determined individual could wreak havoc almost any place, any time, at the cost of countless lives. There is also the matter of long stretches of unguarded US borders.

“We have thousands of miles of coastland that are really not well protected. And one cannot protect every single square mile. A key to look is where choke points might be. Where are areas of transportation, for instance, where key nodes of the economy funnel? Where do the containers come from abroad, what ports? How secure are those?” says Professor Hamilton.

Millions of containers still reach US shores without a thorough examination of their contents. Who knows what, in fact, they may contain?

Yes, much remains to be done, says David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but then much has been accomplished. At least America has learned the lesson of the Nine-eleven disaster: don’t ignore warnings or take any safety for granted.

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