WASHINGTON — A few days ago, I conducted my own involuntary test of airport security. I absent-mindedly left my briefcase unattended in Washington's Dulles airport.
During my absence, an alert K-9 officer pounced on it, and his bomb-sniffing dog determined that it contained no dangerous explosives, thereby saving it from being exploded.
Thus was saved my briefcase and its contents, including my airline ticket, car keys, various files, and notes for this column, which otherwise would have become confetti fluttering down in some remote airport area. Instead I was able gratefully to retrieve my briefcase intact, at the airport police station.
In this little unplanned test, airport security worked splendidly. But that is not always the case, and glitches remain. For example, a passenger taking the same flight as mine was stopped at security when the screening machine detected one of those little multi-purpose pliers she had inadvertently left in her handbag. That was a good catch. But she realized it had been in her handbag at another airport when she began her journey, and the screening machine had not detected it. So at that airport, the system failed.
Then there are such fumbles as the recent clearing of a Middle Eastern passenger with a box-cutter in his handbag on an international flight bound for the United States.
All of which suggests that while we may be preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is still much to be done with improving and tightening security on the home front.
Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security director, ran down a list of achievements for newspaper editors meeting in Washington last week, and it is significant. The Bush administration has put air marshals on planes, positioned the National Guard at airports, moved to improving screening procedures, put the Coast Guard on alert, and successfully protected the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from any terrorist threat.
But there are still large gaps in American antiterrorism planning, and it's not particularly Mr. Ridge's fault. He is supposed to upgrade and coordinate the Homeland Security operation among dozens of relevant US government agencies, but he doesn't yet have the authority or resources that the job demands.
Some of the recommendations of a bipartisan commission on national security that completed its work last year have been implemented, but other, critical, ones lie dormant.
One of the most major is the creation of an independent National Homeland Security Agency, whose director would have cabinet status. The new agency would be built upon the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and folded into it would be the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol, the three organizations currently charged with major responsibility for border security. The Department of Defense and the National Guard would have heightened responsibilities in this area.
Last week, Mitchell Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, suggested that President Bush is getting ready to move on this cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. If this comes to fruition, it would also relieve a tense spat that has bedeviled relations between the White House and Congress in recent weeks.
Ridge, who has been a congressman and a governor, well understands the need for congressional support in his task. So he has engaged in more than 30 briefing sessions about his work with congressional groups. But these have been informal, behind closed doors, not the formal public testimony that members of Congress desire. As a presidential adviser, Ridge is not obliged to testify. As a cabinet secretary, he would be more accountable to Congress.
His theme to editors last week was that there is no 100 percent protection against terrorist attacks on the United States.
"As the technology infrastructure expands," he said, "we become more vulnerable to terrorists." (The commission on national security and other experts have specifically cited the possibility of terrorist cyber- attacks, such as interference with the US air-traffic control system.)
Ridge warned that "we can never again afford to be complacent," and urged Congress not to dally on the implementation of antiterrorist measures.
"Our biggest challenge is to reorganize the government to deal with the 21st century's challenges," he said. "Let's conceptually accept (what needs to be done) and get it done."
The war against terrorism is not won. The gravest threat we face might be the misguided and apathetic belief that it is.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.