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Time asks the nation a scary question

| Thursday, March 7, 2002

It's been half a year since 9/11. America's almost back to normal. The American flags on our SUVs are fading and becoming fewer. We've stopped seeing terrorists behind every beard or anthrax in every spill of sugar.

We've become resigned to our 3-year-olds' shoes being tested for explosives at airports. We're secretly relieved that suicide attacks on innocent civilians are again occurring a safe, foreign-correspondent's distance from our own cities and malls.

So just when we are starting to sleep easy, Time decides to roll a grenade into our tent.

"Can We Stop the Next 9/11?" - which no one outside of an al-Qaida sleeper cell will find comforting - is about how the CIA and FBI are "in a desperate scramble to fix a broken system" before another terror strike comes.

Before unrolling its disconcerting findings, however, Time spooks us with a top-secret doomsday story from last fall. It seems U.S. intelligence officials really believed terrorists were about to set off a 10-kiloton nuke in New York City that would have killed 100,000 and irradiated 700,000.

It was a bum tip and didn't happen, obviously. But Time's investigation reveals what anyone with any sense has always known: There's no way to prevent every act of suicidal terrorism in an open, porous society like ours.

As Time says, we can only try harder and better.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies have to learn how to spy in a post-Soviet world. They no longer can rely on their high-tech electronic toys for information about foreign threats, and must start recruiting humans who can infiltrate terror cells in countries where they speak Arabic, not Russian.

Our territorial, bureaucratic, semi-autonomous, political and often redundant intelligence agencies - all 13 of them - have to learn to do what the rest of us were taught in nursery school - to share. And they all need to be put under one boss at the CIA.

We also have to make the country's safety net tighter, which means more than federalizing tweezers-seizing screeners at airports.

Of course, the Bush administration has approached this security problem in Washington's favorite way - by throwing money at it ($38 billion) and creating agencies such as the Office of Homeland Security that make for good PR on the evening newscasts but won't do much besides making plans for cleaning up after a biological or chemical attack.

Lastly, says Time, we must find terrorists before they act. As we now know so painfully, if the FBI, INS, et al, had been awake and had shared information with other law enforcement agencies, more than half of the 19 suicide hijackers could have been discovered or thwarted.

Worldwide, al-Qaida's base camps in Afghanistan have been destroyed by U.S. military forces and the dragnet has picked up 600 alleged al-Qaida operatives.

But as Time warns, even if Osama bin Laden and his top staff turn up dead in a cave, they might have hatched other, more lethal attacks years ago that are still to come. And Time notes that the number of al-Qaida sleeper cells that have been busted in the United States since 9/11 is zero. So sleep tight.

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