WASHINGTON -- U.S. seaports, energy systems and food and water supplies are vulnerable to terror attacks despite government attempts since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve security, former top government officials and other experts said Friday.
If the country does not deal urgently with its security shortcomings, the panel warned, the next attack could result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to daily life and the economy.
The panel's report said the need for action was made more pressing "by the prospect that the United States might go to war with Iraq and that Saddam Hussein might threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction" in the United States.
"America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil," said the task force, chaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Gary Hart, D-Colo.
"The more we move to tighten up on external threats, the higher the risk becomes at home," Hart said at a news conference presenting the report. "We have to face up to that threat."
Rudman said legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security, which is stalled in Congress, should pass without delay, or lawmakers will pay a heavy price if another major attack occurs. "The time for action is now," Rudman said.
According to the report, the nation's 650,000 local and state police "operate in a virtual intelligence vacuum," without access to the State Department's terrorist watch list.
"Most U.S. cities have separate command-and-control functions for their police and fire departments, and little to no coordination exists between the two organizations," the report said.
While federal screeners are being hired at airports, the report said, only the tiniest percentage of containers, ships, trucks and trains that enter the United States each day are subject to examination, "and weapons of mass destruction could well be hidden among this cargo."
It said oil refineries and distribution systems, the food and agriculture industry and water supplies all were subject to sabotage, biological attack or contamination.
CIA Director George Tenet warned a week ago that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network probably will attempt a strike against the United States soon, and the current situation is similar to what existed before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Because a year has passed without a major terrorist attack against the United States, the report says, "There are already signs that Americans are lapsing back into complacency."
Rudman and Hart led a previous commission whose warnings in January 2001 of the likelihood of catastrophic terrorist attacks were largely ignored but seemed prophetic eight months later.