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Bolstering Homeland Security Will be Challenging, Experts Say - 2001-10-03

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge heads to Washington next week to begin his new job as head of the Office of Homeland Security. Mr. Ridge has the assignment of coordinating the efforts of dozens of federal, state and local agencies to make the United States safer from terrorist attack. But security experts are already warning that bolstering homeland security is much easier said than done.

President Bush's proposal for an office of Homeland Security is getting bipartisan support in the Congress.

Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman is among those urging the president to give Tom Ridge the political clout he needs to make the new cabinet-level position effective.

"The most important national security challenge that we have now is to defend our homeland," Senator Lieberman said. " We have never had to do that before in our history but now we know we must."

Security experts have praised the president's decision as an essential part of America's new war on terrorism. But they also warn that beefing up security around airports, seaports and border crossings alone will not render the United States immune from terrorist attack.

Christopher Whitcomb spent 15 years as a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation working as a counter-terrorism investigator. He says the relative openness of U.S. borders and ease of movement inside the country make it difficult for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to track down every terrorist threat.

"Unless we are going to put somebody in every bedroom in America, in every car in America, in every conference room in America, unless we are going to give up every civil liberty we have, it is going to be impossible to stop every one of these attacks," Mr. Whitcomb said. "I know that is not an easy thing to say or to hear, but quite frankly we are a free country of 280 million people in an increasingly small world and 10,500 agents are doing everything humanly possible to work all of the other criminal matters and this at the same time. It is impossible to stop it all."

Former special agent Whitcomb also says one of the most difficult challenges facing the FBI is penetrating the kind of close-knit terrorist cells that carried out the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

"We are talking about infiltrating a strong, familial, religious-based group where they know everyone. I mean, it is not a question of bringing someone in from the outside and working them in. It is very difficult," he said. "So gathering human intelligence has to be done through sources. It is very tough to get to these sources because they are so ardent in their beliefs and because they are so insulated, not just geographically, but also personally from everybody else around them."

Security experts say that a more effective approach to homeland security must also involve greater public awareness of suspicious individuals who may be involved in or have links to terrorism.

That is a matter of concern to civil liberties activists around the country who fear law enforcement authorities will cite security as a pretext for unfairly detaining innocent people.

Still, even many outspoken defenders of civil liberties acknowledge that the September 11 attacks have had a profound impact on the age-old debate of security versus freedom.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden spoke to the issue on NBC television. "We will be inconvenienced more. I make a distinction. When I say this at home, people say, 'Joe, we are going to be held up at the airport.' That is not your civil liberties," Senator Biden said. "That is like waiting in line to buy hot dogs. It is an inconvenience and we wish you didn't have to do it and there are going to be inconveniences. But any of our fundamental civil liberties, I do not think we have to yield on."

Governor Tom Ridge seemed mindful of this challenge in his farewell address to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. He quoted one of the leaders of American independence, Benjamin Franklin, who once said "that those that can give up essential liberties to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."