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In countless other areas as well, homeland security still needs an upgrade. The Administration plans to hire 800 more customs agents to police the borders but still lacks a system for tracking whether immigrants who enter legally overstay their visas, which three of the Sept. 11 hijackers did. Ridge, who will visit the U.S.-Mexican border this week, has proposed the sensible reform of getting the various border-control agencies--Customs, ins, Border Patrol and Coast Guard--to operate under a single command and work off the same technology. But he lacks the power to make it happen. Despite calls for the Federal Government to improve security at the country's nuclear power plants and weapons sites--and the chilling discovery in Afghanistan of evidence that al-Qaeda may try to target them--little has been done to lock down the sites or to clear the air corridors above them. In October the FAA briefly banned aircraft from flying below 18,000 ft. and within 10 miles of 86 sensitive sites, including several nuclear power plants, but the ban was lifted in November and has not been reinstated.
Government agencies are starting to prepare for other previously unimaginable threats. Experts meeting last week in Lenox, Mass., said hackers in the Middle East have probed the huge computers that control the nation's electric-power grid, and the government has received reports of possible physical reconnaissance of power plants by terrorists. Republican Senator Jon Kyl frets about explosives, such as the three substances found in Reid's shoes, which in small quantities might be missed by airport screening devices and some bomb-sniffing dogs. Small amounts of old-fashioned explosives are potent enough to blow a hole in a fuselage, and experts can't say for certain whether airport detectors can spot them. "I don't really want to talk about this publicly," Kyl says, "but it remains difficult to do something about."
The homeland-security budget is aimed at keeping casualties down; almost all of the $9.5 billion allocated to combat bioterrorism, for instance, goes toward training and equipping local public-health authorities to treat victims and haul out bodies in the event of an attack. The assumption, of course, is that an attack will come. "We need to accept that the possibility of terrorism is a permanent condition for the foreseeable future," Ridge told TIME. "We just have to accept it."
CATCHING BAD GUYS
The single most effective strategy for pre-empting another attack is to hit the attackers first--to disrupt and root out the terrorists who are planning the next strike. That's hard but not impossible. The Sept. 11 hijackers kept low profiles, for example, but didn't plan the attacks in cloistered secrecy. Mohamed Atta and his crew received money from al-Qaeda paymasters through traceable banking channels. Nine of them were singled out for special airport-security screenings on the morning of the attacks, the Washington Post reported, yet managed to slip through. The two hijackers who were on the government terrorist watch list before Sept. 11 possessed valid driver's licenses under their own names and paid for their tickets with credit cards that the FBI could have easily tracked. In some cases, the FBI failed to share information it possessed on suspect individuals with other law-enforcement authorities; in others, the feds simply didn't pay close enough attention.