Are we ready for another 9/11?
''We certainly understand that state and local law enforcement officials want to be included earlier. The request from everyone is they want more.''
By Bart Jansen
Washington, D.C. correspondent
Portland Press Herald
At the National Counterterrorism Center, a red light on the ceiling twirls to warn staffers from 18 intelligence agencies to take a short break from top-secret stuff while reporters sneak a peek.
A huge, projection-screen television shows CNN briefly for visitors Tuesday, but the rest of the time, it relays terrorist threats from around the world.
Staffers from agencies such as the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency sit at rounded, trapezoidal desks that each hold three computer screens. Digital clocks on the wall scroll through times from Khartoum to Sydney. Paper bags catch trash for incineration. A woman at one desk bites into an apple.
The center was created when the intelligence community was reorganized after the failure to detect and thwart the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001.
The center is in an undisclosed location. But you can see a picture of the nifty room at the White House Web site from Aug. 15, when President Bush visited.
''It's a long way from perfect, but it's the best in the United States government,'' said Mike Leiter, the center's principal deputy director.
Obstacles to Sharing Data
The Department of Homeland Security also arose from the ashes of Sept. 11. Congress consolidated 22 agencies — now totaling more than 200,000 workers — to better respond to emergencies.
But that department's lumbering reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left questions how well the new system is working.
A common refrain among intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement officials is that America is safer, but more needs to be done. The authorities spoke with 15 reporters, including one from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, as part of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. The project was sponsored by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
''We've improved the odds, but the odds still favor the terrorists,'' said John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA. ''They play by no rules. They're willing to die. They don't respond to deterrents in a way that traditional enemies have. They go to school on what we do.''
The government aims to share its intelligence better to combat terrorism. But sharing remains the thorniest problem.
''Are we good enough? I think that anyone would say, 'No, not yet,' said former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. He helped lead the Sept. 11 Commission, which recommended government changes.
When a threat pops up, intelligence folks try to narrow down what and when something bad might happen. They check whether the tipster is reliable. They evaluate whether the bad guys could really carry out what is threatened.
One complication is that different agencies use different networks. Staffers at the National Counterterrorism Center have five or six or seven computers tucked under their desks to manually juggle information.
''The private sector hasn't figured it out yet, either,'' said Russ Travers, the center's deputy director for information sharing.
The challenge is that intelligence folks are sifting through tens of thousands of cables a day. Travers calls it the most noise he's heard in 25 years in the business, but that officials are getting better at finding pieces that strike a chord.
''As a country, we're getting more sophisticated about the Froot Loop stuff we see out there,'' Travers said.
Federal agencies share information with state and local agencies at the Department of Homeland Security's National Operations Center.
Little time to react to threats
At another undisclosed location, the red-brick buildings with dormer windows look like the girls' school it once was. Outside, two antennas jut into the sky above white satellite dishes growing like mushrooms. Brown signs in the parking lot mark Intelligence Way and Cryptology Court.
Inside and up the stairs is a warren of tightly packed desks. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Federal Emergency Management Agency share a row. A man whose brush cut has gone gray sat hunched over his VA phone, but over a partition, the woman from the American Red Cross waved hello.
Despite representatives sitting elbow-to-elbow, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said information about threats facing the capital is often slow to filter down.
''Imminent is too late,'' said Lanier, who has trouble changing the direction of 4,000 officers at the last minute. ''At least give me some chance to find that needle in a haystack.''
If a warning is about a truck bomb, she might divert trucks from the farmers' market. If it's an explosive in a parking garage, she might close them all - at great cost to businesses and inconvenience to commuters.
''I'd rather have a black eye'' than thousands dead, Lanier said. ''I might not have stopped it, but I'm going to take action.''
The friction isn't easily resolved. Intelligence officials refer to the messages passed along as ''tear lines,'' from when they were on paper rather than e-mail.
'Maybe we're just lucky'
Leiter tore a sheet from a spiral pad and wrote ''everything'' at the top for the most-sensitive information and ''less'' at the bottom. Where the paper is torn creates tension for both sides over what is credible or a false alarm.
''We certainly understand that state and local law enforcement officials want to be included earlier,'' Leiter said. ''The request from everyone is they want more.''
Why no successful attacks in the United States since Sept. 11? Why no car bombs or a train attack like Madrid or subway attack like London?
''We shouldn't answer questions like that,'' said Paul Pillar, former CIA deputy chief for counterterrorism. ''It could happen tomorrow and I wouldn't be one bit surprised.''
Theories are that al-Qaida and other groups have been thwarted in their attempts. Or they may be plotting something to rival Sept. 11.
''We're doing this as right as we can,'' said John Miller, an FBI spokesman. ''The evidence is that they haven't struck and they've been trying to strike.''
Norman Rabkin, managing director of homeland security for the Government Accountability Office, said the country is ''much better off.'' But he said the open question is whether we're as well off as we should be after spending $40 billion a year on the Department of Homeland Security alone.
''I'm a little surprised there hasn't been a terrorist attack in the U.S.,'' Rabkin said. ''Maybe it's because we're doing a good job. Maybe not. Maybe we're just lucky.''
Copyright 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.