The United States of America is a safer country than it was seven years ago when al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and downed a plane in a field in rural Pennsylvania, said the Department of Homeland Security's top official yesterday.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we are safer today than we were seven years ago," said Secretary Michael Chertoff in a speech before the National Press Club.
Chertoff said Americans have to avoid two opposite and extreme views of the nation's vulnerability to terrorism that have proliferated over the last few years.
The first says that the U.S.'s inability to destroy al Qaeda or capture or kill Osama Bin Laden while terrorists continue to plot attacks against the country means the federal government has failed to protect Americans.
The second school of thought criticized by Chertoff says that al Qaeda has not been able to strike the U.S. again, therefore 9-11 was a freakish anomaly, which the government has exaggerated, and now it's time to move onto other problems.
Both, he said, fail to appreciate what has occurred over the past seven years.
For those who believe the U.S. has failed to protect the country from the continued threat of terrorism, Chertoff said the U.S. has destroyed al Qaeda's original safe haven in Afghanistan while simultaneously denying it of its state sponsor, the Taliban; killed terrorist leaders and their footsoldiers on nearly every continent, including Iraq; built up its intelligence infrastructure and information sharing capabilities worldwide; and created the Department of Homeland Security.
Chertoff also noted Muslim backlash against al Qaeda for its indiscriminate attacks against innocent Muslims, which has resulted in the loss of its reputation throughout the Islamic world.
Nevertheless, the threat persists.
"If we believe we are safe," he said, "we are falling prey to what is the opposite peril of hysteria, namely, the peril of complacency."
Al Qaeda has "developed some breathing space in Pakistan and in certain parts of East Asia and North Africa." And while it is not as strong as it was previously in Afghanistan, the group has the "opportunity to recruit, including Westerners, to plan, to train, and potentially to launch those recruits against either people in Europe or people in the United States," Chertoff said.
Chertoff also admonished those critics that exclusively argue for an either/or approach to fighting terrorism. These critics, he said, either focus on the military or on law enforcement to defeat terrorism.
Chertoff, however, says "It's all of the above.
"We have to use every tool in the national security and homeland security toolbox, and we also have to invent a few tools that we haven't yet fashioned," he said.
He explained that without military power, the U.S. could not have killed, captured, or put so many of al Qaeda's members in Afghanistan on the run. Without law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the court system, the U.S. would not have been able to disrupt terrorist financing or arrested and successfully prosecuted terrorists such as Zacarias Moussaoui.
"So I would argue that it's a comprehensive approach that we have to continue to take," Chertoff said. "And those who attempt to pigeonhole this effort into a single box, mainly because there's a political argument to be made, are actually doing a disservice to the country."