Stay alert on cybersecurity

Are we ready for the next terrorist attack?

It doesn't look like it.

In Afghanistan, the war against terrorism has been waged with brilliance. But in the American homeland, bureaucratic inertia and procrastination are hobbling preparations to meet a new terrorist assault.

The likeliest attack would be one from cyberspace, according to experts who say those who wish the US harm have the capacity to orchestrate it. Its potential targets are the US air traffic system, the nation's financial network, or other critical operations whose computer systems are vulnerable to penetration.

In September 1999 – two years before the 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Center – a government commission warned of a variety of potential attacks on the American homeland. Specifically, it raised the prospect of a "well-planned cyberattack on the air traffic control system on the East Coast of the United States, as some 200 commercial aircraft are trying to land safely in a morning's rain and fog."

The bipartisan commission, co-chaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, offered a blueprint for government restructuring to meet significant new threats to Americans' security. Though some of the commission's recommendations have been inching along to fulfillment, intelligence and other security officials believe progress is tardy and insufficient, given the scale of the threat.

One of the commission's key recommendations was the appointment of a director of Homeland Security and that has been done. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge occupies that role and last week displayed a new operations center in Washington that will liaise with the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other agencies involved in the prevention of terrorist activities.

But while there may be some improvement in communication, it does not give Mr. Ridge authority over scores of other government agencies and units with roles to play in the antiterrorist effort. This lack of authority, and his slender staff of some 100 workers is a far cry from the role envisaged by the Rudman-Hart commission, namely cabinet rank, presiding over a new agency into which would be merged the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol – and which would have sweeping authority for managing homeland security.

Given its slender resources and authority, the Office of Homeland Security has struggled to make improvements where it can. Thus air marshals now fly on some commercial aircraft, and security at airports is getting tighter.

Nevertheless, huge gaps remain in US preparedness, and the vulnerability in cyberspace is but one of the most visible. In Congress, California Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee's terrorism panel, says "cyberterrorism presents a real and growing threat." Echoes Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl: "It's a big threat, because it's easy to do and can cause great harm."

Frank J. Cilluffo, a Center for Strategic and International Studies expert on terrorism, testified before Congress last year that cybersecurity is the "gaping hole" in the nation's infrastructure defense plans. "It's only a matter of time," he said. "While bin Laden may have his finger on the trigger, his grandson might have his finger on the mouse."

But experts and investigators point to other deficiencies that suggest homeland security measures are not being implemented with the urgency that the stunning terrorist attacks of last September should have dictated.

The New York Times recently cited criticism by auditors of various agencies for tardiness in antiterrorism planning. Singled out was the Department of Agriculture for its inability to account for dangerous biological agents at many of its more than 300 laboratories. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy was unable to account fully for radioactive fuel rods and other nuclear material lent to other countries since the 1960s. Auditors were concerned because this was the kind of radioactive material from which crude "dirty" bombs could be made.

Other agencies faulted ranged from the Forest Service (for sloppy security over tanker planes) to the Department of Transportation (for inadequate screening against truck bombers). Says Congresswoman Harman: "Too little has changed since Sept. 11. Federal departments and agencies are not nearly as prepared as they need to be to prevent a second wave of terrorist attacks."

Enough of the finger-pointing between executive and legislative branches. The national emergency triggered by the attacks of Sept. 11 spurred calls for unity and national resolve. We need to see it demonstrated now.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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