Terror Update: Where Does the U.S. Stand?

One day before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the senior government figures charged with assessing terrorist threats to the United States told Congress that the United States is safer than it was before the attacks, but not yet safe from terrorist violence – and won't be for a considerable amount of time.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center and FBI director Robert Mueller.

Redd, though he noted the government's many accomplishments, provided a rather chilling conclusion.

"We are safer today than we were on Sept. 11, 2001. But we are not safe and nor are we likely to be for a generation or more," Redd said. "We are in a long war, we face an enemy that is adaptable, dangerous and persistent, and who always has a vote."

"While we've won many battles since 9/11, there are many battles yet to be fought and we must anticipate there will be setbacks along the way," Redd continued.

Al Qaeda's Strength

Much of the testimony from McConnell, Chertoff and Mueller mirrored the July National Intelligence Estimate on the overall terrorism threat to the United States.

McConnell told the senators, "In our July national intelligence estimate, we assess that al Qaeda is planning to attack the homeland, is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction and significant economic shocks."

Asked if the group had been able to regain strength to Sept. 11 levels, McConnell said, "I would say [they have] significant capability, but not as strong as 2001."

Bin Laden Video

But with last week's surfacing of an apparently new video message from Osama bin Laden, the lawmakers expressed renewed concern.

Responding to the recently released tape, independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman said, "Bin Laden's tape is another shot across our bow. It is the sound of another alarm which calls us to alertness and duty and tells us that bin Laden and his ilk are out there, and so long as they are, the life of every American is endangered."

ABC News obtained a copy of the tape's transcript Friday, and reported on the message's bashing of the Bush administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress and the war in Iraq.

McConnell and Mueller also emphasized the importance of al Qaeda's central operation, reaching out to regional terror networks in Iraq and North Africa to help them expand their ideology and operatives that can be used in attacks. They also focused on the growing threat from "homegrown" terrorists and "lone wolf" types, who are not affiliated with a larger terror network.

Intel and Improvements

The nation's top security officials said that they had made significant improvements to the U.S. intelligence community since the Sept. 11 attacks, through better information sharing and analysis among agencies.

McConnell labeled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the United States to secretly intercept communications of terrorists and spies, as one of the most critical tools to countering terrorist threats.

McConnell said that FISA intercepts had been critical to recent terrorist plots being broken up overseas such as an averted bombing of U.S. military installations in Germany last week.

In August, Congress provided a temporary extension and fix to the current wiretapping law. "We're better prepared now to continue our mission," McConnell said of the move.

Asking the members of Congress to keep those authorities in place, McConnell said, "If we lose FISA, we will lose, my estimate, 50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists, what they're doing to train, what they're doing to recruit, and what they're doing to try to get into this country."

Close Calls?

Chertoff also illustrated several incidents that have raised concerns for his department. In May, a passenger name record (PNR) hit alert alerted U.S. customs officials that a citizen of the United Kingdom should not be allowed to board an aircraft, and the individual was subsequently turned over to U.K. authorities for questioning.

An April PNR hit alerted U.S. Customs officers to two passengers at Boston's Logan Airport. One or both had suspected financial ties to al Qaeda. The men were found with a CD entitled "mujahideen."

At Monday's hearing, Chertoff announced new requirements on general aviation coming from overseas to screen air crews and passengers, in an effort to identify more individuals who may pose a threat before they are allowed to travel.

"We haven't looked at the question of general aviation coming from overseas as a potential vector through which weapons of mass destruction or people who were dangerous might be smuggled into the country," Chertoff said.

"We are now working to plug that threat. Later today, we will be unveiling a plan to begin the process of increasing our security for overseas general aviation coming to this country substantially," he added.

New Concern: Small Boats

Chertoff also made reference to small boats causing more concern, a point he raised in an interview with ABC News' Pierre Thomas last Friday.

"We're looking at small boats, which would be another way of threatening our ports, aside from the container ships that we've talked about so much," Chertoff told ABC News. "And we've begun a project to screen for radioactive material in small boats."

In that interview, Chertoff maintained that there's no "credible evidence about an imminent threat in a specific way to this country that would cause us to raise the level." On Monday, he said it's "no mere accident and not just luck" that the United States has not been attacked since 9/11.

Terrorist Screening Database

Mueller acknowledged the findings of a Justice Department inspector general report released last week, saying one area the FBI needs to improve is "quality assurance. The information that we get -- assuring that it is updated so that persons who may have been on the list at some point in time when we have additional information are removed from the list."

The report also found that the Terrorist Screening Database has grown at an increasingly rapid pace, adding to analysts' workloads. "Since April 2004, the TSDB has more than quadrupled in size, growing from 150,000 to 724,442 records in April 2007," it stated. As many as 400,000 individuals suspected of terrorism are listed in government databases, Redd said.

In one of the more damaging findings, the report also noted that a computer glitch kept the names of at least 20 known or suspected terrorists off the list.

Mueller said the Bureau is responding to the report's recommendations and has managed to cut down on the number of individuals who should not be on the no-fly list.

"One more recent example is, we have been able to go through and scrub the no-fly list and cut it in half," Mueller said.

Higher 'Level of Protection'

Although often criticized for some security procedures such as the ban on liquids after the averted London aviation bomb plot, Chertoff credited the 208,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security, Congress and the partnerships throughout the law enforcement community, adding that "Every day at our own borders, we turn away dangerous people, including individuals with known ties to terrorism, as well as criminals, drug dealers and human traffickers."

"So I sum up by saying that I believe the reason that there have not been successful attacks on American soil is not because the threat has diminished. It's because we have raised our level of protection and our level of disruption, both by undertaking action overseas and undertaking action within our own borders," Chertoff said.