Weapons of mass destruction, small boats packed with explosives and Islamic radicalization are the greatest terrorist threats facing the country, top U.S. security officials said Monday on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The officials told Congress the country is much better prepared to face terror threats than it was then, but that terrorists’ desire to attack the United States remains strong — an assertion that has yet to be fully accepted by the American public, according to a new poll.
“The enemy is not standing still. They are constantly revising their tactics and adapting their strategy and their capabilities,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “And if we stand still — or worse yet, if we retreat — we are going to be handing them an advantage that we dare not see them hold.”
He said the threat of a USS Cole-type attack on U.S. ports — where a small boat packed with explosives detonates in a harbor — is one of his top concerns.
And while the department’s goal is to keep nuclear weapons from entering the country, he said it also is focusing on how it would respond should a nuclear device get through and explode — particularly how to identify and track the nuclear materials. Chertoff also said the department is putting in place new screening regulations that would require providing information on flight crews and passengers before a private aircraft departs from overseas bound for the United States.
The radicalization of potential new terrorists, in the U.S. and abroad, is another growing concern, the intelligence officials said at the hearing on the nation’s terrorism preparedness.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said there is already a problem with radicalization in the United States, and the Internet makes recruiting people to the radical cause much easier. He said working with state and local law enforcement and reaching out to Muslim and South Asian communities is critical to root out violent extremists in American communities.
The U.S. has disrupted several homegrown plots and has helped disrupt overseas plots, most recently last week when three Islamic terror suspects were arrested in Germany. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said monitoring overseas conversations was key to catching the suspected German terrorists.
He stressed the importance of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — known as FISA — and said the country would lose half of the tools it uses to fight terrorism if lawmakers choose to roll back its powers. Congress updated the law last month, but civil liberties advocates and some leading congressional Democrats think the updated law gives the intelligence community too much surveillance power and want to revisit it to add more limits.
Despite the confidence expressed by top administration officials, fewer Americans believe the country is adequately prepared for another attack. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken Sept. 4-9 found that 39 percent of Americans think the country is sufficiently ready — down from 49 percent a year ago and 64 percent in March 2003, when the war in Iraq began.