Are U.S. States Still Vulnerable to Terror?

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Last year, three weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, Alaska had its own terrorism scare. Someone shot the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Before the state could close the leak, 285,000 gallons of crude oil spilled. Daniel Lewis was no terrorist, just a guy driving an ATV while drunk who decided to shoot the pipeline five times with a rifle. But the attack showed that the state had its own safety concerns. Alaska is a lot bigger than New York State, let alone New York City, and it's dotted with tempting targets like the 800-mile pipeline. So Governor Tony Knowles asked the state legislature for $46 million for state security. Its members eventually gave him $2 million.

A year after 9/11, America is only slighter safer than it was that day. The states have implemented some valuable measures, tightening security at potential targets. But the complete overhaul needed to protect our society from terrorism remains incomplete, and all levels of government are to blame. More frightening though, is the fact that many states seem to have lost interest in upping security. With money tight, and worry about another attack fading, many states are following Alaska's example. Homeland security is no longer their top priority.

That's a mistake. Individual states are the key to protecting the nation. They're responsible for security at most of the vulnerable targets in the U.S. State and local agencies would be the first to respond to an attack. And many of the problems dogging America's efforts to tighten security — interstate commerce, drivers' license regulations, communications between first responders — are under states' control. There have been big improvements in some areas. Many high profile targets, like nuclear power plants, have ratcheted up security. The jumble of first responders — police and fire departments, health officials, national guard units — are learning to work with each other.

Many of those front line agencies, however, aren't getting the money and direction they need to truly be prepared. And that's partially the federal government's fault. Most of those federal dollars that were promised to the states in the first months after 9/11 are still working their way through the bureaucracy. Many states have yet to even ask for the money, arguing that they don't know what to request until the White House gives them a unified homeland security plan. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge prepared to issue that plan last summer, but then the President changed directions and decided to create a cabinet department for security. Now Congress has to pass legislation creating the department, then the various agencies being tucked into it will begin working together on a plan. A true blueprint could be months or even years away.

While this federal battle has been going on, the states have started to lose focus on security. But they're just following voters' examples. Polls now show that most Americans are more worried about the economy than about terrorism. State legislators and governors have heard them loud and clear. And since state budgets are in such dismal shape, withering with the economy, state leaders are far less enthusiastic about spending their few dollars on security when they're already cutting Medicaid and raising taxes. Many have made it clear they expect the feds to pay for all security needs. When — or whether — that will happen remains unclear.