Decade finds nation more prepared

With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching, my thoughts are fixed on the more than 3,000 innocents slaughtered that sparkling summer day in the name of a perverted, violent Islamist ideology. Their families, friends and all Americans must know that their legacy endures in innumerable ways — through the unflagging work of their families, foundations and nonprofit groups established to do good work in their names and the evolution our country has undergone to make us safer.

Americans lost a sense of innocence on 9/11, born of an attack that seemed to come out of nowhere. But we are currently in a moment when the American people are overwhelmingly focused on economic problems, rather than the threat of terrorism. Indeed, according to a Gallup poll taken a year ago this month, only 1 percent of Americans now cite terrorism as the top problem confronting our country — versus 46 percent who said so in the immediate aftermath of the attacks 10 years ago.

But we must not let down our guard and forget the lessons we learned on 9/11. We understand more clearly whom our enemy is. We are quicker to identify potential threats. We are better trained and equipped to deal with them.

We now have a Department of Homeland Security whose primary mission is to prevent — and respond to — terrorist attacks and other disasters. The department, bringing together more than 20 agencies to do everything from protecting our borders to protecting against cyberattacks, has embraced this mission and made us safer.

We also reorganized our intelligence community at the behest of the 9/11 Commission, which could not answer the simple question: “Who’s in charge?” We established a director of national intelligence to coordinate the work of our intelligence agents, scattered among 14 different federal agencies. Our domestic intelligence has ramped up too, with the FBI radically transformed from a law enforcement agency focused on solving crimes after they have been committed to an intelligence-driven organization primed to find and stop terrorists before they strike. 

The federal government has vastly improved its relationships with state and local officials, who, because of their proximity to events on the ground, are often in a better position to identify problems early. The coordinated effort of the New York City Police Department and the FBI to prevent Najibullah Zazi from bombing the New York City subway system is the best evidence that working together creates better security.

Because 100 percent security can never be guaranteed in a country as free and open as ours, the nation has worked to make itself more resilient. Governments at all levels, and the private sector, know that we must build strength to recover from an attack, if we are attacked again. Police and firefighters engage in frequent training exercises with federal agencies and are better equipped thanks to Homeland Security grants. And our medical and public-health readiness for some of the most serious bioterrorism threats, such as anthrax and smallpox, is improved because of a concerted campaign to support the development and production of vaccines and new therapies. Unfortunately, the list of potential bioterrorist and pandemic disease threats is long, and we still have a long way to go to develop a nimble system that responds effectively to any disease outbreak. But we have made progress. 

The American people are now more engaged in their own security than they were on 9/11. Because people know their communities best, they will be the first to recognize suspicious behavior that signals potential danger. An alert gun dealer in Killeen, Texas, recently helped avert a potential second Fort Hood shooting when he reported a man buying a large amount of smokeless gunpowder and other ammunition. And an observant street vendor saved lives in Times Square when he notified police of Faisal Shahzad’s empty, smoking SUV that was packed with explosives.

Despite these changes in the way the nation approaches terrorism, much remains to be done. We know terrorists attack trains because of their high concentration of people in relatively small and confined spaces. Yet, our rail and transit security has not kept up with our aviation security. We also need a comprehensive cybersecurity plan to ensure that the private sector is doing all it can to secure the networks and assets of our most critical infrastructure — our energy and water supply and telecommunications and financial systems. 

By putting in place systems that draw on the combined experience of intelligence, law enforcement and rescue-and-recovery agencies from all levels, we have better positioned ourselves to both prevent and recover from a terrorist attack. And all that we have done enables our government to respond much better to such natural disasters as Hurricane Irene than it could have on 9/11.

So as we approach this 10th-anniversary remembrance of Sept. 11, we should be grateful for all that has been done to successfully prevent another large-scale attack against America, and to deny the violent Islamist extremists the victories they seek.

But the war goes on and will for quite a while. So we and our allies must remain as engaged, strong and successful in this conflict as we have been during the past decade.

Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.