Kansas City Remembers 9/11

Better security doesn’t mean we’re perfectly safe

The Kansas City Star

Ten years later, two beliefs have merged to form a consensus.

One is that America and its tens of thousands of cities and towns are far more alert, equipped and trained for a 9/11-style calamity than any security expert could’ve imagined on Sept. 10, 2001.

The other belief, expressed with just as much certainty: We’ll be attacked again.

We are safer. But we are not safe.

Next time, experts say, it probably won’t be a band of 19 foreign-born extremists turning airliners into missiles. It might be a silent hacker, disabling our electric grid or financial markets. Or a circle of chemists, strategically placed to spread disease in the food supply.

“Homeland security,” a term of murky origin, first appeared in The Kansas City Star 11 days after the terrorist strikes, when President George W. Bush spoke of a new White House office to map strategies against future attacks. The term today applies to threats man-made and natural, foreign, domestic or on the border — an “all-hazards” readiness, as put by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Hundreds of billions in federal dollars to equip and train first responders have done more to rescue us from nature’s fury — at tornado-torn Joplin, Mo., for example — than to blunt terrorist plots.

“We should be proud of the fact that we all responded so aggressively” after 9/11, said Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In retrospect and even now, however, the money poured into security hasn’t always made great sense, given the risk.

“We’re much safer today, more prepared — I don’t think there’s any doubt,” he said. “The question becomes, what’s safe enough? There’s no answer to that.”

The Kansas City region may soon find out.

To meet budget restraints, the Department of Homeland Security this year scratched Kansas City and two dozen other metropolitan areas from the Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program.

Since 2003, such grants showered about $70 million on the area for tools that have been put to good use — if not to nab terrorists.

The state of the nation’s finances — from surpluses a decade ago to record deficits — is forcing the government to tighten the rope around its Christmas bag of emergency-preparedness gifts.

The public, too, seems to have shifted attention to the threats posed by a collapsed economy.

A recent Gallup Poll found Americans’ anxieties over a potential terrorist strike near their lowest point of the past decade. Only 38 percent said terrorism on U.S. soil was “very” or “somewhat” likely in the next several weeks. (About twice as many voiced those fears a month after 9/11.)

“Obviously, the economy is the issue,” Nelson said. “People are more worried about their jobs and losing their houses.”

The public’s sense of safety from terror shoots up and down with events. After U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, concerns of an imminent counterattack within U.S. shores zoomed to 62 percent, Gallup found.

The co-chairmen of the so-called 9/11 Commission, which made 41 security recommendations in 2004, issued a 10th anniversary report card earlier this month that found nine of those recommendations “unfulfilled.”

Some lingering weaknesses:

•The latest body-screening technology at airports “still falls short in critical ways” of detecting non-metal explosives hidden within the body.

•Many states have been slow to comply with federal standards to make driver’s licenses and birth certificates fraud-proof.

•While a biometric screening system, US-VISIT, has done much to ensure that foreign nationals arriving at U.S. borders are who they say, no such system is in place for when they leave the country.

•The report card called congressional oversight of domestic security “dysfunctional … carved up to accommodate antiquated committee structures.”

Former 9/11 panel leaders Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean concluded: “We have done much, but there is much more to do.”

Much, apparently, cannot be done, despite the money thrown at it.

In July, the government quietly scuttled the idea of equipping seaports with high-tech radiation detectors. A top priority of the Bush administration, the advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) devices were not proved to work — after $230 million had been spent. That was cheap compared to another doomed DHS project, the “virtual fence” of sensors and cameras on our borders, given up after $1 billion was spent.

•••

Now that the anniversary is here, so is a report that three men may be part of a plot to car-bomb the New York or Washington infrastructure this weekend.

East Coast symbols of power were targeted on 9/11. But today the telling examples of how we’ve refitted a nation are in America’s geographic middle — what many consider the safe center.

In Kansas, federal grants for emergency readiness soared from $670,000 in 1999 to $29 million in 2004, but have dropped significantly since.

Kansas cities and counties spent at least $342,000 on high-tech robots equipped to neutralize bombs, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, whose website breaks down homeland security funding state-by-state.

Keith County, Neb., population 8,370, received $42,000 for a sonar-equipped boat to map wide areas of the Lake McConaughy reservoir. The Los Angeles Times said county officials secured the boat and the latest in dive gear after pitching a scenario in which al-Qaida could booby-trap a ski boat and blow up their dam.

In Tennessee, a high school received $30,000 for a defibrillator to keep during district basketball tournaments.

A county official in North Carolina, explaining U.S. funds spent on a trailer to decontaminate farmers from pesticide exposure, was quoted in Congressional Quarterly: “I’m not preparing for Osama because I’m not sure he’s coming to Yadkin County.”

Missouri, too, came under scrutiny. A 2006 congressional report cited “13,000 chem-bio warfare suits at $400 apiece — one for each and every full-time law enforcement officer in the state.”

In recent years, as federal funds tightened, states got more efficient in gaming grants. By lumping counties into broad regions that assess one town’s needs against others nearby, Kansas encourages emergency services, gear and training to be shared.

“For a time, they’d turn all the money over to the counties to do whatever,” said Lee Tafanelli, Gov. Sam Brownback’s adviser on homeland security. “Some areas in the long term probably weren’t able to sustain” the equipment and capabilities that federal grants provided.

Still, officials contend, those hazmat suits in Missouri have been worn to tear down meth labs. That sonar boat in Nebraska has searched for drowning victims.

Military-style armored vehicles — there’s one in Overland Park — have protected police storming the homes of drug dealers and holed-up shooters, if not terrorists.

The Mid-America Regional Council coordinates homeland security planning and emergency-response training for Kansas City and the eight-county metro area. In the council’s board room, a 30-person panel of police officials, fire chiefs, hospital representatives and city managers from around the region convenes monthly.

“Prior to 9/ll, folks in emergency preparedness were working together but not coming to a single place,” said MARC’s Erin Lynch.

The group has attained a remarkable unanimity in sharing homeland security resources, said Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer. “We call it not a chain of command but, somewhat humorously, a circle of friends.”

Even with the trough of grants emptying, Dyer expects that circle to remain. Cautious use of the federal money — or having more than locals could spend at once — will keep preparedness efforts funded at least through 2013, Lynch said.

“In my mind, it’s not just about the equipment but the training and teamwork to go out and respond,” said Capt. Michael Corwin, who oversees homeland security for the Kansas City Police Department.

Go out and respond … to building collapses, where crews now can deploy sensor probes to pick up breathing. To Joplin, where mobile hospitals shot up, and rescuers from across Kansas and Missouri could talk to one another using portable satellite units linking different frequencies.

A pair of airboats acquired by the Kansas City Fire Department, ostensibly to reach survivors if an airliner crashed into the Missouri River, found action this summer in the search for a state trooper lost in floodwaters. A foam tanker, bought with DHS funds, last month doused the flames of a stunt-plane crash at Wheeler Municipal Airport.

None of it terror-related.

•••

Terrorism’s long shadow could stretch through our lifetimes. Gen. Richard Myers, past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told The Star:“This is not going to go away just because bin Laden is dead. It’s not going to go away just because it’s been a decade. It’s not going to go away because we haven’t been attacked again.”

At Kansas City’s FBI offices, special agent Brian Truchon said: “The number-one priority is counterterrorism, in almost every regard, in every field office …. I can’t think of one person working terrorism who isn’t thinking about it 24/7.”

He said citizens remain vigilant in reporting suspicious activity, heeding the Homeland Security Department’s latest public service campaign: “If you see something, say something.”

In July, such a tip from a gun-store clerk in Killeen, Texas, led to the arrest of Pfc. Naser J. Abdo and the finding of bomb-making materials in a hotel room near Fort Hood.

Alert bystanders in Times Square last year tipped authorities to a suspicious vehicle, saving New York from a bomb blast.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has ballooned from 1,000 investigators before 9/11 to 4,500.

Their focus on organized, well-financed cells capable of replicating the 2001 attacks has shifted to the “lone-wolf” terrorist. But compared to the 9/11 gang, it can be even harder to zero in on, say, an Army psychiatrist before he opens fire at Fort Hood and kills 13 comrades.

The FBI can trace money transfers, or bulk purchases of ammonia nitrate, but “we can’t read a person’s mind,” Truchon said.

At Kansas City International Airport, no would-be terrorist has been stopped among the millions padding around in their socks at screening lines. Nor have any bomb-packers been caught in screening lines nationwide.

But flying is safer. In 2004 alone, the haul of 70,000 items seized by KCI screeners included knives, ski poles, “flammable and irritants” and a gassed-up chainsaw.

A pastor from Independence created a Twitter sensation last spring by posting a photo of KCI screeners patting down an infant’s diaper.

In the sky, national security has meant reinforced cockpit doors, guns for pilots and inconspicuous air marshals in the cabin.

Inconspicuous to some, at least.

Karen Shah, 51, a mom in Davie, Fla., has worn a head scarf since making a pilgrimage to Mecca two years ago. She told McClatchy newspapers, “I know people are looking at me” when she and her husband board a flight.

Her husband, a banker, said he knew whenever an air marshal sat beside him in business class. Male marshals don’t take off their jackets, he said. Female marshals keep their purses on their laps.

•••

Last month at his home a few miles outside Washington, the Republican U.S. Senator from Kansas, Pat Roberts, felt the floor rumble and thought: “Oh my God, if that’s an attack … it’s a really big one.”

It was a minor earthquake. But Roberts’ first reaction reflected the anxieties still easily triggered in the nation’s capital and New York City.

Roberts, once Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, has been immersed in tracking national-security threats ever since 9/11.

He said he’d like to think federal vigilance has prevented attacks that could have killed untold numbers of Americans the last decade.

Problems remain in the 13 intel agencies sharing information, he said, and in politicians squabbling for pieces of a classified but lucrative intelligence pie:

“Some are putting (cost) numbers above national security, and that’s what worries me…”

When the Patriot Act became law in October 2001, it loosened eavesdropping rules on citizens suspected of links to terrorist groups. In many cases, court-OK’d warrants weren’t needed to snoop business records, credit-card transactions or Internet traffic.

Federal agents now present “national security letters” and obtain the records they want. Data-mining on mostly law-abiding citizens reportedly draws hardly any judicial review or congressional oversight.

Civil-liberties groups try to tear the veil of secrecy, but the public appears ambivalent. A slim majority — 54 percent — said in a poll last week that if forced to choose between preserving their freedoms and protecting people from terror, they’d side with civil liberties.

“All of us have been secretly probed in some way,” said Fred Cate of Indiana University, who has testified before Congress. “Everyone today carries a cellphone — the largest sensor network in the world.

“In the last century, I was comfortable in knowing more about my government than it knew about me. That’s turned around … and we’re at the early, early stages.”

In May, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, on the intel panel, warned: “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted (surveillance law), they will be stunned, and they will be angry.”

Roberts doubts that. Those who value safety will “wonder what the fuss is about,” if they ever know the full story.

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