WASHINGTON – Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks brought international terrorism to America's shores, lawmakers and experts agree that much remains to be done to guarantee the nation's safety.
“Five years after 9/11, America still faces determined enemies. We will not be safe until those enemies are finally defeated,” President Bush said this week, a message hammered home daily in speeches aimed at igniting support for the administration's War on Terror.
His message also rang through the halls of Congress, which returned to Capitol Hill last week for a short session before breaking to resume midterm election campaigns. The president called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would clear the way to try suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as expand the intelligence gathering powers of the National Security Agency and the CIA.
Democratic heavyweights countered that the Bush administration isn’t doing enough to protect Americans from terrorists.
“Under the Bush administration and this Republican Congress, America is less safe, facing greater threats and unprepared for the dangerous world in which we live,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Those opposing viewpoints are reflected in a FOX News poll released last week, that shows American voters will take their terror concerns with them when they head to the polls in November.
Democratic and Republican voters each list terrorism as a major concern, with Republicans putting it at the top of their list. The economy and Iraq were the other major voter concerns.
“I think there’s no question that security is an issue that is still on Americans’ minds,” said James Carafano, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.
Carafano said politicians on the campaign trail are scurrying to align themselves with safety and counterterrorism because they think homeland security is an issue that will win them votes.
“Politicians are desperate to find the bumper sticker to throw up there that makes them tough on security,” Carafano said.
National security is a top voter issue because Americans care about their safety, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
”This is really more important than any election,” Cornyn said. “There is a very clear choice between those who want to quit and those who want to persevere and try to provide security in Iraq… so we don’t have to fight that fight back here on our shores.”.
Twelve percent of voters survey for the FOX News poll put terrorism as the most important issue on their mind, according to the poll. Democrats chose the economy as their key issue while Republicans picked terrorism.
The telephone poll, conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corp., surveyed 900 registered voters. The poll has a 3-point error margin.
Five Years Later...
Five years after President Bush wrapped an arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith at the World Trade Center site and vowed to protect America, much has changed.
Government officials scrambled days after the attacks to prevent further attacks on American soil. Bush announced the creation of the Department of Homeland Security – the first of many counterterrorism tools launched to fight the War on Terror.
The new super agency faced enormous challenges, the most public of which was fighting a new enemy from thousands of miles away, while at the same time finding new ways to anticipate and prevent further attacks.
Bush named former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head the new department, which is responsible for coordinating the efforts of a myriad of federal agencies overseeing national security, including the NSA, CIA and FBI, and such hot-button challenges as immigration and border protection, transportation and airline safety, security of the nation's ports and waterways, as well as coordinating the estimated 87,000 governmental jurisdictions at the federal, state, and local level that have homeland security responsibilities.
Billions of dollars later, and in spite of many intelligence successes that have intercepted potential terrorist attacks — such as the arrests of suspected terrorist groups in Miami and Chicago, this year — some experts believe America will always remain vulnerable.
"Since 9/11, we've scored some serious victories and we've also had some serious loss," said Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. "We are more likely to experience low-level and mid-level terrorist attacks, but less likely to experience 9/11 catastrophic attacks."
'It’s More Difficult to Bring a Plane Down Now’
Not all terror experts agree with Byman's assessment.
Rick Gordon, a principal at the Civitas Group, LLC, headed by former NSA adviser Samuel R. Berger, said America is making progress, but still has a long way to go.
“I think we’re significantly less vulnerable,” Gordon said. “It’s more difficult to bring down a plane now.”
Money spent on intelligence and security such as screening airline passengers has helped better prepare the nation for another attack, Gordon said. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be another attack.
“I certainly hope not but I think most of us in the industry recognize that if you have a determined enemy whose resolve doesn’t seem to be waning, it’s inevitable,” Gordon said.
Americans pay more attention to terrorism now, Gordon said.
“We’re living in a different world now,” Gordon said. “We’re a lot less naïve.”