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McHale: Homeland Defenses Deterring al Qaeda Attacks

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2006 – Reinforced defenses within the United States, coupled with extensive antiterrorism operations overseas, have hampered terrorists' ambitions to launch a follow-up attack against the country since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Pentagon's homeland defense chief.

Paul McHale, the Defense Department's first assistant secretary for homeland security, acknowledged to civilian leaders visiting the Pentagon recently that he's surprised terrorists haven't attempted such an attack. But luck has nothing to do with it, he said.

"Our power projection overseas to attack and degrade the capabilities of al Qaeda, combined with domestic security measures we have put in place ... have created an environment making it very difficult for al Qaeda to launch follow-on attacks exploiting their initial success on 9/11," McHale told alumni of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference last week.

The civilians attending the session were past participants in the DoD program that gives business, civic and academic leaders a weeklong immersion into military operations.

McHale described extensive efforts to build up defenses that didn't exist during the Sept. 11 attacks. "Now, active-duty soldiers and sometimes active-duty Marines are prepared to deploy on our own soil to defend against a foreign threat," he said. "We have active-duty units on a short alert, ready to respond if civilian law enforcement and the National Guard cannot defeat an emergency terrorist threat on our own soil."

The United States hasn't engaged in this type of domestic defense against a foreign threat since 1814, when the Marines in Bladensburg, Md., defended against a British attack on the U.S. Capitol, McHale told the group. "So it's not an unprecedented event, but one that hasn't occurred for more than a century," he said.

As ground forces continue their defense, U.S. Navy ships identified by U.S. Northern Command stand ready to interdict and defeat terrorist threats as they approach the United States on the high seas, McHale said. These ships have the capability of detecting weapons of mass destruction that might be transported by terrorists planning an attack, and rendering them safe, he said.

Homeland defenses extend to the skies as well. The United States and Canada, working through a bilateral partnership at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, operate regular combat air patrols through domestic airspace, McHale said.

These aircrews are prepared to perform a mission they never trained for before the Sept. 11 attacks: shooting down a civilian aircraft commandeered by terrorists.

"It's a sobering mission," difficult for most people to even contemplate and daunting to those who would have to carry it out, McHale acknowledged. "But we are prepared to use military aircraft to shoot down a civilian aircraft under the control of terrorists in order to save an even greater number of lives," he said.

Similarly, ground-based air defenses in plain view around the Washington, D.C., area are ready to act, if ordered, to shoot down a terrorist-operated aircraft, he said.

By ensuring that terrorists know the U.S. has the resolve to carry out this mission serves as a deterrent to other Sept. 11-type attacks, McHale told the group. "The purpose is to indicate to terrorists that an aircraft under control of terrorists will be engaged (and) shot down before that aircraft can reach an intended terrorist target," he said.

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