Measures Abroad, Stateside Protect Against Terrorist Threat
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2005 The Defense Department's first assistant secretary for homeland defense acknowledged he's surprised terrorists haven't launched another 9/11-type attack against the United States -- but is quick to say he's not calling it luck.
Paul McHale told civilian leaders gathered at the Pentagon Feb. 18 that he credits the country's aggressive efforts to disrupt the al Qaeda terrorist network, as well as to build up its homeland defense capabilities, with preventing more attacks within U.S. borders.
"Luck has had nothing to do with it," McHale told alumni of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, who traveled here for a full day of briefings about U.S. defense issues. The civilians attending the session were among about 50 business, civic and academic leaders who traveled throughout the Pacific region in September to learn about military operations and observe them firsthand.
Had the United States not taken multiple measures to confront the terrorists and build up its defenses, McHale told the group, he has little doubt that al Qaeda would have attacked again, "probably on multiple occasions."
"We have had significant achievement in terms of taking the fight to the enemy overseas and in making it known that we are better prepared at home," he said. Both, he said, are probably deterring terrorists intent on launching more attacks.
The United States has "dramatically disrupted" al Qaeda, killing or capturing more than two-thirds of its leadership and making it difficult for the terrorists to move money or communicate over significant distances, McHale said. "We have disrupted their planning cycle, and with an aggressive intensity, we must continue to do so," he said.
McHale said there's no doubt that, given the opportunity, terrorists will launch another attack. He said there's no way to know for certain how many "sleeper cells" may be in the country, planning one or more attacks or preparing to carry them out.
But, he said, extensive measures to beef up the country's homeland defense capabilities may be hampering these plans. "We will never know how helpful (this has been) and to what extent we might have disrupted a plan under way," he said.
"We have built up defenses that did not exist on the morning of Sept. 11," McHale told the group. The Air National Guard routinely flies combat air patrols within U.S. airspace, and "a very robust number of F-16s and F-15s" is prepared to take off within minutes to assume a combat posture within U.S. borders, he said.
McHale said the military also has trained for the "sobering" mission it feasibly could be forced to carry out: shooting down a hijacked civilian airliner about to be used by terrorists as a weapons platform, as occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. It's a mission he acknowledged carries "a heavy burden" for all involved, but could be necessary to save even more lives.
"The purpose is to let it be known that we have that capability and are prepared to use it under the necessary circumstances so we can deter such an attack," McHale said.
In addition, a new combatant command, U.S. Northern Command, is focused on homeland defense and the use of the U.S. military in and near the United States.
McHale said civilian law enforcement continues to provide the county's first line of defense, backed up by a greatly enhanced National Guard force, in which every state now has its own quick-reaction forces.
In addition, the United States now has "significant" active Army and Marine forces on alert, ready to respond as necessary, he said. "Today in the United States, unlike on Sept. 11, we have active duty units on alert, prepared to deploy within our country in order to confront terrorists should we become aware of a potential terrorist attack," he said.
McHale said the United States also is at work enhancing its maritime defenses to prevent hostile nation states or transnational terrorists from launching attacks within U.S. waters or ports. These attacks could be devastating if ships are used as platforms to launch attacks involving weapons of mass destruction against U.S. ports or cities, he said.
If these defenses prove inadequate and terrorists successfully launch an attack on the United States involving weapons of mass destruction, McHale said, Northern Command's Joint Task Force Civil Support stands ready to respond immediately. If needed, thousands of troops would support the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency "to put military capabilities and manpower behind a national response to a terrorist attack or series of attacks involving weapons of mass destruction," he said.
McHale said he never uses the word "comfortable" to describe the level to which he believes the terrorist threat is in check. But by remaining vigilant, he said, it's feasible that the United States will maintain a comparable level of security during the next three years.
"We have methodically built defenses that did not exist on the morning of Sept. 11," he said. "We tried to develop the vision (and) the imagination that was absent on Sept. 11 and tried to develop capabilities to deal with emerging threats as best as we could anticipate."
These steps, he said, have enabled the county to "earn its safety in the last three years."
"We've come a long way in the last three years" in expanding U.S. defense capabilities, McHale said. "And we must remain vigilant."