- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The United States is far safer from terrorism today than it was three years ago, when Islamic radicals killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, said experts assembled last week at a seminar here.

“The pundits who say we’re no safer than we were on 9/11 — I don’t know where they’ve been or where they are,” said Air Force Gen. Ralph “Ed” Eberhart, commander of U.S. Northern Command here, which is in charge of the military homeland security operations. “We’re much safer than we were on 9/11, but I don’t think we’re ever going to be safe enough.”

Gen. Eberhart spoke about the attack and its aftermath at “Homeland Security Vulnerabilities and Threats: Separating Hype from Reality,” a three-day conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and El Pomar Foundation, a Colorado-based philanthropy.

The main reason terrorists haven’t followed up with a second strike on the homeland is that the battlefield has shifted from New York and Washington, to Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.

“First and foremost, we’ve taken the fight to the enemy,” the general said.

Consolidating authority for homeland security at Northern Command, improving intelligence gathering, gearing military exercises to terrorist scenarios, tightening airline security and re-energizing such domestic agencies as the FBI also have contributed to improved safety, he said.

“In many cases, we’re dealing with the junior varsity players in al Qaeda now. A lot of the varsity has graduated in ways they didn’t want to graduate,” he said. “If every time we interrupt one of those [terrorist operations] and they have to start over, it buys us more time.”

He also predicted that airlines could switch to remote-control piloting, in which planes could be controlled by the ground, if there were another attack involving a commercial airplane.

“I personally believe that if we have another tragedy like 9/11, the clamor will be such that there will be a demand to deny terrorists control of the plane,” Gen. Eberhart said. “There are ways to do this. It’s just a question of whether we’re ready culturally to do that.”

The war on terrorism has given rise to other technology.

At the conference, a Lockheed Martin engineer unveiled the Risk Assessment Platform, a computer system that assesses risks to homeland security through threat analysis. The federal government has been using the system since December.

Although a terrorist attack could cost trillions of dollars, economists noted that unchecked spending on security won’t necessarily deter the threat.

Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, recommended investing first in intelligence and transportation-management control to get the biggest bang for the anti-terrorism buck.

“We can be in danger of breaking the bank without stopping terrorism in the United States,” Mr. Goure said.

Another problem is the public’s attitude toward the war on terrorism. Several panelists said they worried that the absence of a recent terrorist attack on U.S. soil has bred complacency among Americans.

“We have an attitudinal problem. We have a number of people who are mainly in denial [because] we haven’t had an attack for three years,” said Edwin Meese, presidential counsel and attorney general in the Reagan administration. “It’s these attitudinal problems that [can be] a problem for the United States because they make it easier for the terrorists to do their work.”

Americans must remember that terrorism isn’t the enemy, he said.

“Terrorism is a means, but the enemy is an ideological force that has its own objectives,” said Mr. Meese, now a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

One way to remind Americans that the nation is still at war is to use unflinching terminology, said Lois Clark McCoy, president of the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue.

“We need to be more precise; 9/11 was not an attack, it was a massacre,” Miss McCoy said. “Eighty percent of our nation is asleep. They’re frozen in fear. They’re in denial — they’re calling everything hype. You cannot do that and win a war for your freedom.”

• Brendan Conway contributed to this report.

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