February 11, 2008
Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff‘s eyes narrow and his voice develops a stern, urgent tone as he reveals America’s biggest vulnerability to terrorism.
"The great weapon they have is persistence and patience, and the one weakness that we have is the tendency to lose patience and become complacent," Chertoff tells WTOP.
"It strikes me as hard to accept that anybody would believe the threat is over. There is nothing these terrorists are doing or saying that could lead a reasonable person to believe that they have somehow lost interest. Our biggest challenge is making sure we do not drop our guard because time passes."
Chertoff recognizes it has been more than six years since al Qaida launched the Sept. 11 attacks, but some experts say that’s how long it took to plan them, suggesting the U.S. may close in on another spectacular attempt by Osama bin Laden to topple the U.S. economy.
"If you’re asking me what keeps me up at night or what I most worry about — in the short term, obviously, you worry about homegrown terrorists or somebody coming in with an explosive device or the kind of act of violence or terror that we’ve actually seen occasionally carried out in this country by people who are simply nuts or like a Timothy McVeigh.
"But in the longer run, in terms of something that would really be earth-shattering, the kinds of things I’m worried about are a nuclear or a dirty bomb attack or a nuclear or biological attack. Now I don’t believe that the capability to do that is around the corner."
What worries him, worries U.S. intelligence officials as well.
CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week that al Qaida will continue trying to "acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials (CBRN), and would not hesitate to use them in attacks."
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said at that same hearing that "al-Qaida remains the pre-eminent threat against the United States."
Europe is at the top of the list of possible launch points for an attack against the U.S.
"One of the things we’ve become concerned about lately is the possibility of Europe becoming a platform for a threat against the United States," Chertoff told the British Broadcasting Company in mid-January.
Chertoff tells WTOP he’s convinced by evidence from 2007 that the stakes are high.
"Just look at what’s happened in the last year. We had the attacks in Britain. We had the disrupted plot in Germany. We had the arrests in Spain," Chertoff said. "Clearly terrorists and militants are able to operate within Europe."
The special travel relationship between the U.S. and Europe is worrisome for Chertoff.
"We have a visa waiver program with respect to Europe that allows people to come without getting visas. There’s an obvious concern that people might seize that as they tried in August 2006 to use Europe as a platform to attack us."
And CBRN attacks, which are most likely from an organized al Qaida threat, would require the largest protective investment.
"I don’t believe that the capability to do that is around the corner, but I also think that the preparations that we need to have in place to deal with this threat are going to take a while to build, and we’re building them as we speak.
"But they’re not going to be done in six weeks or even six months. So what is important is to stay focused on making the investments now that we will be very grateful for in several years if someone does get their hands on nuclear materials or a biological agent."
What is the Department of Homeland Security doing to prepare for the possibility? Chertoff recites a long list, including scanning capability, the ability to disarm, better intelligence focus and better capability to make sure that the radioactive material in this country is properly accounted for and secured.
"With respect to biological agents, we’ve got widely deployed biological sensors, but we now want to move to the next generation of sensor, which would be quicker, cheaper and even easier to disperse. We’re creating an integrated intelligence fusion capability focused on biological threats, so that we can merge intelligence, clinical information and sensor data in order to rapidly identify and characterize a biological attack."
Chertoff is not sleeping any better than he was last year at this time, but he’s not sleeping any worse. He feels the pieces are being put in place to counter an attack from al Qaida, and win the war on terror.
But there is one lingering question that has yet to be answered: Will the nation remain focused enough to finish it?
"We’re moving properly and efficiently, but it only works if we don’t lose interest in it. If we decide that it’s no longer a concern, then we’re going to be putting ourselves in danger."