A stronger, safer America moves ahead

A decade has now passed since the tragic attacks of 9/11, when terrorists exploited our aviation system to kill nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children, including citizens of more than 90 countries.

Ten years later, there is no question that America is a stronger and more secure nation. We have bounced back from the worst attacks ever on our soil, and made progress on every front to protect ourselves. 

At the department I am proud to lead, this anniversary carries a special significance. The U.S. Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, after the 9/11 attacks, bringing together 22 separate agencies and offices into a single, Cabinet-level department. 

And while, 10 years after 9/11, we are stronger, safer and more secure, serious threats remain. Terrorism did not begin on 9/11, nor did it end with the death of Osama bin Laden. Today’s threats are real, and rapidly evolving. They command our vigilance and our willingness to learn and adapt.

Thanks in large measure to the strong bipartisan support of Congress, DHS has grown and matured since opening its doors in March 2003 to address these evolving threats. For the past several years, the department, together with partners in government, the private sector and communities across America, has worked to build a homeland security “enterprise” to minimize our risks and maximize our ability to respond to the kinds of risks we face. 

As I will discuss when I testify Sept. 13 before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, we have made significant progress in addressing key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and now have in place many critical features and security measures that did not exist on 9/11. 

For example, 72 recognized state and major-urban-area fusion centers now serve as focal points where information about threats can be gathered, analyzed and shared.

We have enhanced, and greatly expanded, the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which trains state and local law enforcement to recognize behaviors and indicators related to terrorism and crime, and standardizes how those observations are documented, analyzed and shared with the FBI and local law enforcement.

We have launched a new National Terrorism Advisory System, or NTAS, to provide real-time information to the public about specific and credible threats, replacing the old color-coded system of alerts.

We are expanding the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, a simple and effective program to raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism and crime and emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to proper law enforcement authorities.

And we have taken significant steps to facilitate the exchange of information about terrorists and criminals with international partners; strengthen airline passenger pre-screening and screening for explosives; protect cybernetworks and critical infrastructure; bolster the security of our air, land and sea borders and identification documents; and protect privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.

While the men and women of DHS continue to work tirelessly to address numerous recommendations, it is my hope that Congress will address the one unmet 9/11 Commission recommendation that is solely within its power to solve.

Effective congressional oversight is critical to promoting transparency, accountability and efficiency. The 9/11 Commission Report recognized that the existing structure of fragmented and disparate oversight over DHS requires significant department resources and hinders Congress’s ability to provide the department with clear oversight and guidance. During the 111th Congress alone, DHS witnesses testified in 304 hearings and presented 4,072 briefings before 108 committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over some aspect of our work. I testified 22 times myself. So far this year, DHS has testified in 120 hearings and provided more than 1,800 briefings. We can all agree that reforming this system will be good for Congress, DHS and the American people.

Today, hometowns across America are working together and building a strong foundation for a secure and resilient homeland. This approach is based on the simple but powerful premise that homeland security begins with hometown security. All of us have a stake in keeping our families and communities, businesses and social networks and places of meeting and worship secure and resilient. 

Because of these efforts, and those of our men and women on the front lines, our dedicated counterterrorism and emergency management professionals and our committed partners in Congress, we are a stronger nation than we were on 9/11. We can never guarantee that there won’t be another successful attack. But we can continue to do everything possible to minimize the possibility that an attack takes place and maximize our capacity to respond if it does. Securing our homeland is a shared responsibility. And now, more than ever, all of us have roles to play.

Napolitano is secretary of Homeland Security.

This post has been updated.