Articulo Bill Powell. Fortune. 16.09.02
The island is called Vozrozhdeniye. Lodged between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the Aral Sea, it is among the most godforsaken outposts of the Cold War. And for precisely that reason it became, earlier this year, a critical, if unheralded, front in the war on terror. There were no al Qaeda cells, no American "boots on the ground.'' Not a shot was fired. But what happened there, about 5,000 miles from New York's ground zero, needs to be repeated in many other places a long way from home if most of us are to survive the 21st century.
Voz Island, as it's known, was the primary testing ground for the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, and as such was a burial site for the stuff of our post-Sept. 11 nightmares, the garbage dump from hell: live anthrax spores, smallpox, you name it. If it could kill you, it was there. Lying just 800 miles northwest of Afghanistan, it represented a rich, obvious target for the folks who gave us those charming videos this summer of forlorn dogs sitting in glass boxes being gassed.
This past April, under a program funded by the U.S. government and intended to secure the vast amounts of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union, teams from the U.S. and Uzbekistan spent four weeks ridding Voz Island, once and forever, of the raw material for what the military blandly calls asymmetric warfare. It was, says Sonia Ben-Ouagrham of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, "one very important, if not obvious, step forward in the pursuit of homeland security.''
It has been a year since Sept. 11, and ten months since the death of the last victim of the subsequent, and still unsolved, anthrax attacks. And nothing has happened since. For all the warnings, for all the rumors of imminent dirty nukes, arrests of shoe bombers, and suspected sleeper cells, there has not, remarkably, been another attack. Not many people one year ago would have predicted that.
It would be nice, therefore, to think that nothing like what happened then could happen now. That the merciful quiet at home in the year since the 11th has been because we have taken the war to the enemy abroad and become vigilant and smart at home. And it is true that, as the Voz Island cleanup shows, there has been some progress. Money has finally begun to flow; countless man-hours have been put in, and security systems throughout virtually the entire country's economic infrastructure are being rethought and (slowly--very, very slowly) upgraded.
But if the question is "Are we safe yet?" the answer is "No." First off, that's because safety--sure-fire, you-can-count-on-it safety--is unattainable. There are too many targets, too many points of vulnerability, and, alas, too many determined enemies willing to die for a cause. No open, democratic country has struggled more to achieve "homeland security" than Israel. And yet over the past year we have witnessed, with numbing frequency, unimaginable carnage in Israel's major cities.
But it is also undeniably true that one year on, for a lot of reasons (some reasonable, some risible), the hard work of enhancing homeland security has really only just begun. Democracy, even in the wake of a stunning blow like that inflicted on the 11th, is messy. It took a lot of handwringing, and a lot of hearings to move off the dime on homeland security. Three critical areas, all of which fall under the homeland security rubric, provide a reasonable gauge of where we stand and how far we still need to go: First is aviation security, which in the eyes of some experts (not to mention millions of travelers) remains woefully deficient from a security standpoint. Next are our ports and waterways, vital nodes in the global economy that prior to Sept. 11 had never been seriously considered in a security context. And finally (and most important) is our ability to deter and if necessary respond to a weapons-of-mass-destruction, or WMD, attack. Creating a sense of real security in each of these areas is going to take a long time not because nothing has happened in the past year, but rather because, relatively speaking, so little had been done long before that fateful day one year ago.
Few know that better than former Coast Guard officer Stephen Flynn. His was the proverbial cry in the night that went unheard before Sept. 11. A homeland-security obsessive, he helped produce the largely ignored 2001 Hart-Rudman report, which was bitterly critical of U.S. vulnerability to a terrorist attack and flatly predicted a devastating assault. These days, when Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks, people listen. And even now he wakes up every morning, turns on the news, and waits to hear if the bad guys have inflicted more damage here at home. When he hears that they haven't, he says, "I just think to myself, Another lucky day.''
A serious homeland-security policy, Flynn and others argue, is like triage. Even in a world of expanded resources--the government is throwing billions at homeland security--priorities have to be set ruthlessly. And since Sept. 11, they have been. While places like the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., have remained blessedly free of the suicide bombers that plague Israel, many law enforcement agents view their arrival as all but inevitable. It will be shocking should it happen, but as one former FBI official puts it, shock is relative. "If it's just a bomb, a regular bomb, then life goes on. WMD is the ball game here. It gets the time; it gets the resources.''
As the unfurling debate about whether to depose Saddam Hussein indicates, the Bush administration is very much focused on WMD. That's as it should be, even if it did take Sept. 11 to get the administration there. In his first year in office, Bush actually wanted to cut funds going to programs whose goals are straightforward and smart: first, to identify, account for, and help secure stockpiles of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons throughout the former Soviet Union; and second, to design and fund projects that keep scientists and engineers in each of those areas gainfully employed in their home countries, lest they sell their services to Iran, Iraq, or al Qaeda.