Just because we have begun the war with Iraq doesn't mean we can expect terrorists bent on attacking American interests at home and abroad to take a vacation. In fact, terrorism experts here fear the United States and its interests abroad may be at even greater danger as a result of the war.
Between information developed from intelligence sources and that gathered from captured members of terror groups - including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda chief operations officer captured recently in Pakistan - American officials have assembled a list of possible overseas targets as long as it is creative. Some say terrorists plan to poison the food and water of the soldiers in Kuwait; others speak of attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, suicide bombers in Jordan, and bomb attacks in the Philippines.
At home, power plants and food supplies lead the list of vulnerable targets, say officials. They are numerous. They are vital. And, according to the General Accounting Office, they don't measure up when it comes to security. The GAO gave petrochemical plants failing grades on security in a recent report and gave poor marks to the security of America's food supplies because of lax security at processing plants and other facilities.
The Departments of Energy and Agriculture have ordered increased security measures at these facilities and are working to implement stricter inspections and employee background checks in response to the national Level Orange alert. But these reforms are late to come on line and could prove difficult to implement.
The Bush administration last week announced a new initiative - Operation Liberty Shield - to address these concerns and vulnerabilities. The most comprehensive national homeland security plan to date, Liberty Shield focuses on increased security at America's ports, borders and critical infrastructures, as well as increasing the ongoing efforts to disrupt terrorist activity.
It features a coordinated national effort that places heavy emphasis on the involvement of state and local law enforcement officials and emergency personnel. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has asked the nation's governors to order National Guard troops to help improve security at critical locations around their state. Even businesses have been asked to pitch in.
The early results have been promising. No one is known publicly to have succeeded at pulling off a terrorist attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, but many have threatened or tried and failed. America's overseas interests remain on high alert, and the bombing in Bali last Oct. 12 served as a reminder that terrorists can strike anywhere.
Iraqi president Saddam Hussein consistently has sought to link America's confrontation with his country to its alliance with Israel to further inflame the "Arab street." In his blast at President Bush concerning the 48-hours-to-leave ultimatum, his statement said Iraq "does not choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv." Washington and London have been quite public about their intent that he be removed as leader. Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, has said nothing.
Similarly, when war broke out, he wished America to fail at the attack "it had been driven to by the criminal Zionists" and spoke of the American-Zionist alliance against nations." So it will be some time before the terrorist threat abates, and it is certain not to happen while America is engaged in war in the Middle East.
Measuring the success of America's homeland security approach clearly has become a matter of subjectivity. Supporters of the approach point to the lack of attacks. Opponents say that's mostly a matter of luck and point to the numerous vulnerabilities - foreign and domestic - that remain. Worse yet, it has become a political issue - subject to partisan finger pointing by those who want a piece of the homeland security pie.
Critics and comedians regularly pick on Ridge for alarming and confusing the public - needlessly, they say - by raising the alert level several times now with only vague warnings and little or no specific advice to offer. A recent parody even portrayed a line of clothing made out of plastic sheeting and duct tape. All "Rainbow of Terror" jokes aside, it is difficult to measure the work of Ridge and his agency.
Even so, the task of protecting the homeland, in particular, remains far from complete. The call for states to pony up millions of additional dollars for first-response and preparedness initiatives comes at a time when they are dealing with unprecedented budget distress. Local governments find themselves in equally dire straits, and the federal government is looking at hundreds of billions of dollars of deficits before it even begins to tote up the cost of the war in Iraq.
Unfortunately, terrorists don't tend to consult with our government before executing their plans. Worse yet, our own intelligence agencies don't communicate as well as they should. We receive intelligence in bits and pieces, but reality requires that we assess it in such a way that we immediately appreciate the big picture. That's why creating a terror information fusion center must be among Ridge's top priorities as he assembles his department.
Even without a fusion center, intelligence has helped authorities arrest 2,000 suspected terrorists around the world, break up three major terrorist cells inside the United States and freeze more than $100 million in alleged terrorist assets.
The war is upon us. The heightened danger already is a fact of our lives. Now, we must ensure homeland security concerns don't become political issues. Safety and security for Americans and their interests must be not the guiding force but the sole influence on homeland security decision-making. The success of Operation Liberty Shield depends upon the attention and efforts of all levels of government, across all boundaries, to work together in identifying threats, reporting suspicious activity and processing that information, and preparing for the possibility of a terrorist attack.
The terrorist threats are indeed real, and perhaps more serious than ever in light of the invasion of Iraq. Our nation has come a long way since Sept. 11, 2001, in preparing for these threats. But perhaps longer still is the road to convincing the American public of that.
Dana Robert Dillon is senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center and Melissa Pardue is a research assistant in homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.