The government has improved national security on some fronts, according to members of the panel, which was convened by the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, created by former members and staff of the 9/11 Commission. Some panelists, however, said they see creeping complacency within the public and government, largely because there has not been a terrorist attack in the country in almost four years.
"For every day that goes by in which we are successful in protecting the people of the United States, it becomes more and more difficult to focus the attention of policy makers on steps that are necessary to see to it that that condition exists," said former 9/11 commissioner Slade Gorton, a former GOP senator from Washington state.
Clark Kent Ervin, who served as the Homeland Security Department's inspector general until last December, said he "couldn't agree more" that complacency is on the rise. For example, Ervin said, the Secret Service did not immediately inform President Bush when a small plane strayed into restricted airspace over the nation's capitol last month. The incursion turned out to be accidental and harmless, but the scare caused the Capitol and White House, including the first lady, to be evacuated.
Ervin was highly critical of DHS and was not reappointed by the White House to his position.
Panel members cited wide-ranging national security gaps that continue to make the country vulnerable to attack, from lags in screening cargo to insecure borders to vulnerabilities within the maritime transit industry.
"With my own eyes, I see vulnerabilities almost every single day that could be closed," said former 9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, who chaired the panel.
"I think the country remains vulnerable four years after 9/11," Ervin told Government Executive. "We're safer now than we were on 9/11, but we're not as safe as we can be, we're not as safe as we need to be, we're not as safe as we think we are."
He added: "People think that just because there hasn't been an attack in the last four years, we're winning when, in fact, it might say more about al Qaeda's long planning cycles and about our lack of intelligence than it does about their lack of intention or capability."
Stephen Flynn, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the maritime industry remains particularly vulnerable. "Looking in the maritime arena … there is not much in place that would deter me from exploiting this sector and targeting this sector," he said.
He speculated that a maritime attack could bring the global trade system to its knees in a matter of days.
"We're still struggling and recognizing just how dependent we are in these systems and just how fragile they are," he said.
He noted, for example, that 21 million containers moved through the port of Hong Kong last year. He said a half hour delay at the port would snarl traffic throughout the waterways, a two-hour delay would back trucks up to the China border, and shutting down the port for about 100 hours would back trucks up 140 miles. "This is a fragile, sensitive system that we have to keep moving by both managing the threat within it and managing the mechanisms we put in place."
The United States, however, does not yet have a comprehensive maritime security strategy, he said. President Bush has created an interagency group to draft a plan by next month, he added.
But C. Stewart Verdery, former DHS assistant secretary for policy and planning, noted many efforts that the Bush administration has undertaken in recent years, particularly with regard to implementing a biometric entry-exit system at the nation's air, land and sea ports of entry. He cited several challenges the government still faces, but said many recommendations from the 9/11 commission are being carried out.
"I believe the government has moved about as quickly as is possible to turn the commission's recommendations into concrete action," he said.
But the government also must do more to prevent new vulnerabilities from being created, said Edward Lambert, mayor of Fall River, Mass. Lambert has been fighting to prevent Hess LNG from building a liquefied natural gas import facility in that town. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to rule this week on whether the facility can be built.
Lambert said he has pleaded to DHS for help, but officials told him they did not know what they could do.
"It seems that not only in the case of our particular instance, but in a number of instances, Homeland Security finds itself powerless to weigh in on particular projects that might … three to five years from now increase their burden and their financial liability," Lambert said.
The panel was the fourth of eight being convened by the Public Discourse Project this summer to assess the government's progress in improving national security. The Public Discourse Project plans to issue a report card this summer detailing the progress that federal agencies have - and have not - made.