On high alert, US lifting its guard higher

In a flurry of security activity, America has moved to the highest stage of alert at home since World War II.

In the wake of Sunday's retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan, the Coast Guard is mounting extra patrols in 300 ports and harbors. National Guard troops are posted at airports from Los Angeles to New Jersey. Vice President Dick Cheney is in a secret location - separate from President Bush.

These and many other actions represent the first steps in building a new "Fortress America" - a task former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge promised to lead as he was sworn in yesterday as the nation's homeland-defense chief.

But long-term success in building a bulwark against terrorism, observers say, will depend on at least three things: whether Americans can sustain their vigilance for the coming months and years, whether Mr. Ridge can effectively coordinate and motivate government agencies, and whether the nation devotes its energies to wise security moves, not superfluous ones. Effectively tracking foreign visitors who enter the country, for example, might be more useful than preventing passengers from toting nail clippers onto planes.

In all, the security changes mark a hinge point in American history. Unlike World War II, when campaigns were fought far away, today's war is fought on and around US streets, borders, and harbors. "The battlefield is now everywhere," says historian Henry Graff. Daily life for Americans may start to resemble the British during World War II or the Israelis today, he says, as citizens become sentinels looking out for signs of attacks.

But whether Americans can stay focused on this task for days, months, or even years, is unclear. Short attention spans could hinder vigilance.

Yet some detect a permanent change. "Even though we've started laughing again and started going about our business again, there's a recognition that we're different," says pollster John Zogby. When the need is clear, he says, Americans can change behavior quickly. He recalls World War I austerity measures such as Meatless Mondays.

The point man for keeping the nation focused on the issue is Ridge. Yesterday, Mr. Bush said Ridge's goals include preventing terror attacks - and recovering from them if they occur. Ridge, Bush said, "will have my authority" to meet those goals. Indeed, Ridge will be bolstered by having an office down the hall from Bush and a staff of 100.

Ridge called for "candor" from government agencies and the public: "No one should be wary of coming forward when they see a problem. It's the only way to define a solution." He also called for cooperation, including between federal agencies.

But some Washington observers question whether Ridge will be able to succeed on Washington's bureaucratic battlefields. He'll have to coordinate more than 40 agencies, including the powerful Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although he's a burly Vietnam veteran known for his straight talk and elbow-throwing style, he arrives in Washington with little clout.

"His only authority ... is to ask the president to yell at somebody," says Paul Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution here. "It's a tattletale authority."

A significant gauge of Ridge's importance will be whether key department heads attend Ridge's meetings or opt to send deputies.

To really be effective, Mr. Light suggests, Ridge should get the authority to hire 100,000 new full-time workers - and distribute them as he sees fit among various agencies. "Then a lot of important people will come to his meetings," Light says.

Members of Congress are debating how to empower Ridge. Some would put him atop a permanent homeland-defense agency that would include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, parts of the Coast Guard, Customs Service, and Border Patrol. Others would give him budget authority over the FBI and other agencies fighting terror activities. Both may happen.

One of Ridge's biggest tasks, observers say, is to sort the wheat from the chaff of counterterror measures.

Much has been made of the fact that National Guard troops are patrolling airports, for instance. But their impact on security is still undetermined: Reporters from the New York Daily News smuggled banned items - including box-cutters and scissors - onto 10 of the 12 flights they attempted to board last week.

"We've had the appearance of increased security through the National Guard troops, state police, and a variety of others," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association here. But overall, he says, "the airline-security system is still as deficient and spotty and random as it was before."

Serious holes also sill exist, for instance, in the Immigration and Naturalization Service's ability to track foreign visitors here with tourist, student, or other visas. Some 3 million foreign nationals are currently living in the US with expired visas.

Road maps do exist, however, for ways to strengthen the nation's anti-terror efforts. Several blue-ribbon commissions have published reports that point the way. Key elements include: tightening America's borders, deporting foreign nationals even tangentially connected to terrorist groups, and boosting cooperation with foreign-intelligence services.

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