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CNN NEWSROOM

Airport Security Eight Years After 9/11; Coast Guard Security Scare; Advocating For 9/11 Victims; The Politics of Security

Aired September 12, 2009 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CENTER: All right, it's the top of the hour 4:00 Eastern Time. Here are some of the stories we're following in the CNN NEWSROOM. More U.S. troops could be headed to Afghanistan soon. A spokesman says Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants them to help combat the growing danger of roadside bombs.

President Obama delivered a rousing speech in support of health care reform in Minneapolis last hour. He says Americans should be able to get the same coverage that members of Congress get.

And space shuttle "Discovery" is back safe and sound. Bad weather over Florida forced the shuttle to touch down in California last night.

All right, 9/11 reshaped America's focus on counterterrorism. Eight years after that indelible day, do you feel safer in your home, in public places, or even at airports? Do you believe we as a nation are doing all we can? Or do you believe America has gone overboard encroaching on your civil liberties?

We hope to answer some of your questions, all of them, in this next hour. We've already received a lot of questions and comments from you on FaceBook, my blog, and through e-mails. We've got an entire hour, so we still want to hear from you.

So responding to your thoughts this hour, Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve, cyber terrorism expert Dave Merkel, Mary Fetchet, who lost her son on 9/11 and now advocates vigilance as everyone's responsibility, and former Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Ervin.

So, Clark, let's begin with you. We have already been hearing from a number of people, including with a lot of pretty provocative questions, including, Chris , who says "no amount of security could ever be implemented to keep the country totally free from fear, danger, and exposure to attack. However, I believe the security measures that have been and will be implemented to mitigate our exposure to attack and danger and make the U.S. safer than it was before 9/11." Is he right? Are we indeed safer now in your view?

CLARK ERVIN, FORMER DHS INSPECTOR GENERAL: Yes, I was waiting for the however because until then I had an issue with that. He's certainly right to say that we can never be 100 percent safe. That's absolutely impossible, but we are safer. I think the 9/11 commission has put it well by saying we are safer than we were on 9/11 but not yet safe. There remain vulnerabilities in aviation and as Transit Maritime Security and it's incumbent upon us to remember that we remain under threat. I really worry about creeping complacencies since 9/11.

WHITFIELD: Oh, we're going to delve into that complacency issue later on in this hour. But first Jeremiah, the prophet, also writing on my blog saying, "No, America is not safer! Why? Because the FBI and other DOJ entities, Department of Defense, CIA, DHS and others charged with protecting us are still not getting along behind the scenes due to budgetary concerns, distrust issues, and departmental customs and traditions." So might he have a point as well, that the friction between agencies is a big problem?

ERVIN: Well, he's partially right, but I think he's substantially wrong. There has been a sea change in the degree of cooperation, increased cooperation between the Department of Justice, the Central Intelligence Agency, the entirety of the national security apparatus of the United States. It's night and day from what it was on 9/11.

Is there improvement to be had still? Absolutely. Are there individuals who continue to have a pre-9/11 mindset within those agencies? Of course. But on the whole we are very much a long ways down on the road of progress and inter-agency cooperation.

WHITFIELD: And Scott Stodden says "Honestly, I'm not sure what lengths we have gone during the Obama administration to ensure the safety of Americans in the United States. I believe our roadways, bridges, et cetera are fairly safe, but I don't feel that we have that good of relations with other countries that would prevent an attack." Might he be making a point, or have we as a country, indeed, made some headway as it pertains to better cooperation with other countries?

ERVIN: I think we've made tremendous headway in that regard. President Obama has made a priority of increasing international cooperation and signaling to the world, saying to the world that the United States respects the opinion of the international community. That's not to say that we'll always agree and it certainly isn't to say we're going it let our foreign policy be dictated by other countries, but it is to say that not only is it the right thing to do, but also it's a very smart counter terrorism strategy to enlist the cooperation of the international community.

WHITFIELD: All right. Clark, we have been hearing from people in so many shapes and around forms. And Josh has also been going through a number of questions and comments from people. So, Josh, in general what are folks kind of focusing in on as it pertains to are we safer as a nation?

JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fred, lots of questions. And Clark, thanks for doing this. You know, it's really interesting what people have been writing us for a few days now since we said we were going to do this focus.

Let's go straight to this question from Anita. I want you to see this. Anita Nelson-Miller and she's asking us "Why haven't most of the 9/11 recommendations been taken seriously?" Now, obviously both administrations would say they took them seriously, but, Clark, we know there have been political disputes about this for years. How well are we doing as a nation implementing those recommendations?

ERVIN: You know, Josh, we've made tremendous progress. For example, the 9/11 Commission recommended that we begin screening incoming cargo containers, maritime cargo containers for radiation. We're doing that. We have a ways to go on the technology, but at least we're beginning.

Substantially those commission recommendations have been implemented. Really, the outstanding one, the main outstanding one has to do with Congress. There are still far too many, 80 plus, depending on some counts of hundreds of congressional committees that have some jurisdiction over Homeland Security. That's a real problem for the Department of Homeland Security. Too much oversight is a practical matter is actually no oversight at all but -

LEVS: Clark, let me just ask you because I have one more but I want to follow up on that. You know, President Bush came under a lot of criticism for not implementing some of the recommendations. You saw these report cards come out a few years ago saying - I think giving the United States very, very low marks in terms of implementing them. Has President Obama brought about a marked change in the effort to implement those recommendations?

ERVIN: Well, you know, there was, I must say, some dragging on the feet on the part of the Bush administration, but a couple of years ago, the Congress passed a law that the administration signed that actually has made substantial progress on those recommendations, and since taking office, the Obama administration, Secretary Napolitano has continued in that regard in terms of aviation and mass transit security.

So again, as I said at the beginning, there's a ways to go, but we're substantially down the road in implementing those recommendations. Congress now needs to do its part.

LEVS: Yes. And Fred, Clark, I want to toss one more at you. I'll be fast. This is from Corrine who is talking about some of the reports we have seen. "Have you seen reports on TV of the men working on the bridges? Sleeping? They are paid "security." HAHAHA!" It's funny for a moment but it's really no laughing matter. We have seen these videos. Clark, talk to us about the roads. Are they safe?

ERVIN: Well, I'm very disturbed by this report. We're talking about the George Washington Bridge in New York which we know is a top terror target. The two guards who were asleep. You know, I think the unfortunate thing is that you could go to a lot of strategic targets, federal buildings here in Washington, strategic targets in New York, other major cities around the country. I'm afraid to you that you'd find the very same thing.

And that's what I mean about creeping complacency. Of course, it's a good thing that we haven't been attacked in eight years. But the fact that we haven't been I think has caused a lot of people to relax their guard. And I worry about that very much, indeed and I hope the administration will continue to emphasize the message that we're not out of the woods yet.

LEVS: Well, Fred, you heard what he had just said. You can go to any city in America and find something similar. So clearly that's one of the big challenges that we'll be looking at this hour.

WHITFIELD: That's right. All right. Former Inspector General Clark Ervin, we're going to hear from you again throughout the hour. That's kind of the broad brush view of national security. You have given it a grade - heard a little bit from Clark, given it a grade as well. And now see we're going to talk about airport security. You know what kind of measures have been put into place post-9/11. When you travel, you experience it all the time. How efficient is it?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. We're focusing on the state of U.S. security in the post-9/11 years. Eight years after the worst terror track terror attacks on U.S. soil, Americans are less concerned about terrorists striking again than in the period immediately after 9/11.

Take a look at this poll numbers, a CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 34 percent of you say acts of terrorism are likely over the next few weeks. 64 percent say terrorist acts are not likely. Back in 2001 66 percent of Americans feared more terror attacks in the weeks following 9/11.

So does it appear as though Americans in general feel a little bit more comfortable or is it an issue of complacency? You heard from Clark Ervin just at the top, a former inspector general, saying he's worried about the complacency that Americans may be conveying.

Let's check in with our CNN Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve. Is that the concern of Homeland Security, that people are feeling so comfortable eight years after the fact that there is this level of comfort or complacency?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It's a big concern, and you have heard the administration underlining in recent weeks the necessity for personal preparedness. They're trying to get out the message that everybody should take care of themselves after an emergency. They should have a plan for what to do if anything untoward should happen, that they should have some minimum supplies. They should have legal documents set aside, so forth and so on.

They're really underlining this. I can tell you as someone who has covered emergencies since 9/11, particularly a lot of big hurricanes. There's a real need for this. The simple fact of the matter is emergency responders cannot get to everybody right away, and if most people can take care of themselves at a minimal level, then they can concentrate their efforts on those who really might need help, let's say special needs population or the elderly.

WHITFIELD: Immediately after 9/11 the glaring vulnerability was airline travel, and so now whenever we get into an airport, we go through some pretty severe checks. TSA is charged with having to secure us in a very big way, but if that has been such an important avenue, why are we just now seeing a TSA chief that's been appointed in this new administration when the vacancy has been there for many months?

MESERVE: Well, the White House will tell you the reason is they were looking for exactly the right person for the job. The guy they have tapped for this, Errol Southers, certainly has the resume that looks like he fits. He's been chief of police at Los Angeles International Airport. Prior to that he was a deputy director of California's Homeland Security Department.

He's been a police officer. He's been an FBI agent. He seems to have a very deep background that would be appropriate for this job. They say it was just a matter of finding the right guy. And I should say in the meantime, of course, there were people running the TSA. There are career employees there who stepped up into the top slot. They were seeing things along, but probably no great innovations over the last several months because they have been waiting for their permanent director to be named.

WHITFIELD: All right. Josh Levs has been fielding a lot of e-mails, questions, comments about airport security. So Josh, what are people worried about airport security or are they feeling very comfortable?

LEVS: The people we're hearing from are not feeling very comfortable. In fact, we have an interesting example here that I got over Facebook. Jeanne, take a look at this. This came to us from Michelle Powell who wrote us about what she just did. "I don't the airport security is very "on top of it." I just flew in from Savannah with pepper spray, a corkscrew knife combo, and a pen knife in my backpack. I had forgotten to remove them."

Jeanne, you've done a lot of pieces over the years, reports about how good is getting stopped or not stopped when people go through the security. How good a job is it really doing?

MESERVE: Well, it's problematic. A lot of us have had these experiences, myself included where you have brought something through security and inadvertently gotten to the other end and said, oh, my gosh, why didn't they catch this? It's problematic. And you know, Clark Kent Ervin when he was inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security did a lot of studies on exactly what was going on.

Part of it, some people say, has to do with the workforce and how well it's trained, some of it has to do with the technology and how good the technology is. They're working on both of those things and constantly introducing new technologies.

I can tell you just in the past couple of weeks, they've introduced a new kit that's going to allow them to test powders, to see if there's some sort of explosive threat from any powders that someone might bring on board. So it's an incremental process. They're trying to improve it. But are there gaps? You bet your buttons there are.

WHITFIELD: Sure. Josh and Jeanne, there have been so many complaints. Folks are still issuing complaints whether they feel like security is just a little overboard or whether it's not quite enough. Among those complaining are people who say their civil liberties are being violated when they go through airport security.

And so we invited Aziz Huq who is with the University of Chicago Law School. He has also co-authored a book, "Unchecked and Unbalanced Presidential Power in a Time of Terror." And so, you know, Aziz, what is the biggest complaint about civil liberties being infringed upon? Was it really just in the immediate days of 9/11 or is that still a persistent complaint?

AZIZ HUQ, UNIV. OF CHICAGO LAW SCHOOL: Well, the three big complaints you hear about civil liberties violations after 9/11 are, first, unlawful detention of people without criminal trial. The poster child for that is Guantanamo, but it's also occurring in places like Bagram and Afghanistan. It occurred in the United States largely through immigration powers after 9/11.

You hear a lot of concern about surveillance and searches, electronic searches such as people's e-mails, surveillance of their telephone calls. And then the third bucket of problems is all around the issue of torture, interrogation using measures that are arguably outside of federal and international law.

WHITFIELD: And before we even get to that, we heard from viewers, bloggers, who said, you know, they are feeling moments where their rights are being infringed upon all the time. Eileen Curras said that "My cooling vest became a subject of fear at the Orlando downtown library in July of 2007. When the policewoman just went bizarre when someone pointed out that my cooling vest was a bullet vest and I actually use it for my multiple sclerosis due to heat intolerance." So I guess, Jeanne, sometimes there are misunderstandings, and sometimes people feel like it's intentional as well.

MESERVE: Yes. You know, given the amount of publicity that these incidents draw, I certainly don't think it's intentional. I think sometimes there are issues of training that have to be worked upon, matters of sensitivity that have to be worked upon. It's definitely not a perfect system. I can tell you that the previous director of the TSA was very concerned about these matters, looked into them quite seriously, but as I said before, it's problematic. It's a very difficult needle to thread.

WHITFIELD: Yes.

MESERVE: And they point out that they try to do sensitivity training for their employees, try to make them aware of different cultures and so forth, but you know sometimes they get intelligence about specific kinds of things. I certainly can't address this particular woman's problems, but I know that there have been instances where they felt that people might be using medical devices to try and smuggle explosives through. There's been intelligence pointing to this.

And so they have been extra careful about probing, let's say, a back brace or something that someone is wearing. And some people might find it offensive. They feel they have to do it for security reasons. WHITFIELD: And perhaps looking forward, Brian has this idea. He wrote in by saying "fix immigration and everyone be presented with a federally-issued identity card. Anyone caught counterfeiting these will be charged with terrorism and conspiracy and the penalty will be death. This is not a game we are playing and it's not an opportunity to enrich campaign contributors."

So would that be a reasonable, I can already tell Jeanne, you're saying, no way. You know, I guess a reasonable potential solution to make sure that everyone is treated the same way when going through the rigors of high security?

HUQ: Well, I'm not sure if it's a reasonable solution. It's certainly a very, very expensive solution. It was discussed extensively in Great Britain by the Blair government, and Gordon Brown, his successor, recently quietly abandoned the scheme because the British government concluded that it would be extraordinarily expensive and have very little security impact. There's very little thing that tracking identity through a federal identification card does in terms of security.

WHITFIELD: All right. Aziz Hug, thanks so much, from the University of Chicago Law School. Thanks for being with us, Jeanne, as well. Thanks so much. We will see you again, Jeanne, throughout the hour, and, Josh, appreciate those e-mails and comments as well.

All right. Well, some complain that it's where America is most vulnerable. We're talking waterways and ports. Are they right?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: A return to our special look at Homeland Security, the state of U.S. security in just a few minutes.

But first, some of the headlines.

President Obama touted health care reform today in front of a cheering crowd in Minneapolis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've heard scare tactics instead of honest debates. Too many have used this opportunity to score short term political points instead of working together to solve long term challenges. I don't know if you agree with me but I think the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed, now is the time for action, now is the time to deliver on healthcare for every American.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: The president's opponents were out in force as well. Tens of thousands of conservatives march to the U.S. capital in the nation's capital, protesting government spending in general and the president's health insurance plan in specific. So two men who died battling that huge wildfire near Los Angeles, were remembered to today. Thousands of mourners attended a memorial service to Dodgers' Stadium. Speakers included Vice President Joe Biden and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When we come back more on the state of U.S. security as it pertains to cyber terrorism. Are we ahead of the game?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Welcome back as we concentrate on the state of U.S. security post-9/11. Take a look at these images right here. This played out on television sets across the country yesterday, and this morning "The Washington Post" puts it this way, describing it as the result being the biggest government-induced security scare since the Pentagon flew an Air Force One look-alike low over Manhattan for a photo-op earlier this year.

This was a training mission by the U.S. Coast Guard. But it certainly got a lot of people up in arms and it also provoked this question. Many people in the public saying, we need to know when a training mission like this is taking place. So is that asking too much? We bring back our Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve as well as former Inspector General Clark Ervin and Josh Levs, also fielding a lot of your questions. So as it pertains to public knowledge, the public says it wants to know about training missions. It wants to know about every intricacy of our state of security. Jeanne, is that a good argument to make?

MESERVE: I think it's unrealistic the public know about every single training exercise. Some of them, frankly, are not going to be obvious to the public, but something like this that was done on a public waterway near a major event with the president nearby, there should have been notification - many people feel to some of the other local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and also perhaps in this instance to the media.

You can bet that the Coast Guard is looking at that matter to figure out how to prevent anything like this from happening again, and I would think that other law enforcement agencies would be looking as well and considering. I will say that very often we do get alerts. Our inboxes are often cluttered with notification that NORAD or somebody is going to be doing something around some sensitive facility.

WHITFIELD: So Clark, particularly when it pertains to ports and waterway, many have said this is where the United States is most vulnerable. So with publicizing a training mission, publicizing every intricacy of national security as it pertains to ports and waterways undermined this cloak of secrecy that's almost needed in national security in order to get the job done, protect America?

ERVIN: Right, I agree with Jeanne. It's a question of detail. Certainly we can't disclose every single training exercise, including in the maritime context. Many of them have to be classified. But what was striking about yesterday is that it was 9/11 and the president was in the area. For those two reasons the Coast Guard ought not to have conducted that exercise. That particular exercise is an unclassified one. It's a routine one. It's one that the Coast Guard needs to do so that they know what to do should there be a real incident.

WHITFIELD: How do we take this moment and move forward with continuing to protect our waterways, our borders, et cetera?

ERVIN: Well, we should take it as a learning exercise to make sure that we inform the public under circumstances like these when there is reasonable basis for fear -

WHITFIELD: So there is that right to know then?

ERVIN: Under certain circumstances, there's a right to know when knowing will not to compromise security, and when there's a reasonable public fear as there was yesterday under the circumstances with 9/11.

WHITFIELD: OK. Let me stop you right there. Because Josh has a couple of thoughts from folks who have been writing in, and giving us their thoughts and questions all day long. Josh, what do you have?

LEVS: Yes, Fred, you know, it's an interesting discussion. Clark, let me toss this at you. I know this is going to be really tough because it's a long list. This is the kind of thing we're getting. This comes to us from Jeff who says "What's being done to protect our electric power grid, water, fuel, train, transportation and shipping and our capacity to feed our people? I don't expect to you break down every single one of those, but talk to me on all these fronts. Is the U.S. making serious gains each year, yes or no?

ERVIN: Well, the answer is yes. That's the short answer, but it's of course more complicated than that. The umbrella term for all those things is critical infrastructure, and the people at the Department of Homeland Security and their partners in the private sector who own or operate about 85 percent of critical infrastructure are working very hard to do a better job of securing that infrastructure. You know, I worry about the fact that it would be easier to conduct an attack against certain elements of critical infrastructure than to pull off another 9/11-style attack. So we got to redouble our efforts.

LEVS: Can you giver us a letter grade? How are we doing on infrastructure?

ERVIN: I'd probably shy away from a letter grade as a general rule, but I'd probably say "C" and we could do better.

LEVS: Oh, you (INAUDIBLE)

WHITFIELD: Jeanne, might there be a more concerted effort or a greater emphasis on port security, waterways security from this day forward if Homeland Security feels pretty comfortable about how TSA and other agencies might be handling airline security?

MESERVE: You know, it's a much more difficult problem in some ways because in the air system you have a limited number of entry points. The shipping system is a spider web, and it's global in nature. And there's nothing we can do in this country that is going to absolutely secure it.

The past administration tried to do some things to push the problem outwards. They tried to start custom inspections in other containers, and other countries and the like. Some of that is taking place, but there are problems. There are issues of sovereignty, sometimes ports and other nations simply don't have the infrastructure to support what we want to do.

It's very complex and it's very difficult. And some people worry even more about how we're going to handle it if something does, indeed, go wrong. Are we going to end up shutting down the whole system and what effect will that have?

WHITFIELD: All right. Jeanne, Clark, Josh, thanks so much. We'll have you back in a moment. Meantime, coming up, she lost her son in 9/11 eight years ago. Now she is not only trying to keep the memory of her son alive, but that of the 3,000 or so other people who perished that day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Welcome back. As we focus on the state of U.S. security, perhaps among the Americans most conscientious about national security would be the family members of the many who died on 9/11. Among them, Mary Fetchet. She has also led up a group called Voices of September 11th, trying to keep the memory of the 3,000 or so people who died during the World Trade Center attack. She's joining us now from New York. Good to see you.

MARY FETCHET, CO-FOUNDER, VOICES OF SEPT. 11: Hi, there.

WHITFIELD: Well tell me about this day, this weekend. This is very tough for you even though you live with the memory of your 24-year-old son, Brad, every day.

FETCHET: Well, the anniversary is always a very challenging time for the families, but, you know, the fifth anniversary was a particular milestone for our families.

WHITFIELD: In what way?

FETCHET: Well, I think we've gotten to know each other in so many ways over the last eight years, and when we come together during the anniversary, it's always a time of reflection and remembering the loved ones that we lost, but also reconnecting with the people that have been so supportive over the last eight years.

WHITFIELD: And how do you use this effort, this project, Voices of September 11th, to keep the memory of the many who died that day alive? How do you use that as also an avenue to try to promote people to be -- to take on the responsibility of being vigilant about national security?

FETCHET: Well, we're working on several projects. I was part of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee that pushed for the creation of the 9/11 Commission, and then worked to promote legislation based on the reforms. After the legislation was passed, Voices of September 11th was particularly focused on preparedness and particularly the private sector, and so we're continuing to travel to Washington. In fact, I was just on a task force with Clark recently, Secretary Napolitano is evaluating the color code alerts. So we're continuing to focus on that.

WHITFIELD: Do you feel like that effort is harder because it is eight years after 9/11 or is it easier because there is greater recognition not just of you and your organization, but all Americans have become conditioned to be a lot more conscientious about what the day means, 9/11, and what the effort of national security means.

FETCHET: Well, I think certainly it's a day to remember, but we also have to be vigilant. I do think that we are still -- there is a real concern about another terrorist attack, and I'm concerned in particular about your report on complacency among our citizens.

WHITFIELD: Do you think that's real, that there is a complacency setting in?

FETCHET: Absolutely. And what we're finding is four minutes made the difference between life and death on 9/11. So I think it's really critical that our community and our individuals are prepared and, you know, September is preparedness month, and Secretary Napolitano is taking this very seriously and trying to promote the importance of individual preparedness in your home and your community in the workforce, on college campuses, and you really have to understand that if you're on an airplane or on a train or at the event, you are the first responder, and you have to be well-aware on how you can react almost immediately.

WHITFIELD: So you can't simply have your blinders on. Mary Fechet of Voices of September 11th, thanks so much for your time.

FETCHET: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Which really brings us to the direction now of homeland security and the Obama administration. Are they in sync?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: We'll return to our special on national security, state of our security, U.S. security in a moment. But first a check of the stories happening right now.

President Obama is heading home after rallying supporters of health care reform in Minneapolis. Some 15,000 people turned out for this speech in the city's Target Center. The president said no one should have to worry that they could lose coverage even for a single day. Critics of the president's policies are rallying outside the U.S. Capitol. An organization led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey brought several groups together, including the so-called Tea Party Express.

And a policy shift from Washington. The administration said it is willing to hold direct talks with North Korea about its nuclear program. The State Department says the goal would be to get North Korea to return to six-party talks.

Much more on the state of U.S. security, cyber security. Are we ahead of the game?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: We're focusing on the state of U.S. security. President Obama said security in cyberspace, very important.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's now clear this cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation. From now on, our digital infrastructure, the networks and computers we depend on every day, will be treated as they should be, as a strategic national asset. Protecting this infrastructure will be a national security priority.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: All right, so let's talk about this security in cyberspace. We brought in Dave Merkel as the vice president of product development at Mandiant, a company that helps banks, Fortune 500 companies, and the defense industry secure their networks against cyber crimes.

We also have with us our homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve and Josh Levs also along with us who has a number of questions and comments coming from you at home. All right.

So, Dave, let me begin with you. Are we talking about the -- the president says this is pretty vital, among the most vital of issues we need to attack, but the biggest problem is sometimes there are no trails for those who are up to no good in cyberspace. So how much better are we as a nation in trying to track down people who are breaching our security in cyberspace?

DAVE MERKEL, MANDIANT: That's a good question. It really is extremely difficult when you're looking at an online attack to go from what happened on a computer system or a network and bring it back to an actual human being. I don't know that I would say we are any better now than we have been in a pure technical sense.

WHITFIELD: Why not?

MERKEL: Well, a lot of times you really have to combine not just the technical information, but also real world information, investigative information, in order to find the bad guy. And in many circumstances, the bad guy could be anywhere.

So you're really talking about a human intelligence problem in many circumstances. That being said, I would say we are probably moving more aggressively to doing a better job with being able to identify when attacks occur and we are seeing a lot of organizations and companies take the issues of a potential breach more seriously.

WHITFIELD: So we are talking about a very big umbrella when you talk about those who are planning attacks, say, on U.S. soil or in U.S. interests and we're also talking about perhaps those of us who do our banking online, a lot of our personal information online, and so our personal I guess identities and our privacies online are also being breached potentially under this huge umbrella. So it's quite big.

MERKEL: Absolutely, it's huge. And there's a lot of territory to cover. I think there was a little bit in the segment earlier talking about the difficulties of securing waterways. And we talk about online and network security. Imagine a problem many orders of magnitude larger and more complex.

WHITFIELD: OK so Jeanne, let me bring you in here, homeland security correspondent. When the administration says it is a top priority, making sure that there is a policing of cyberspace, is the priority our personal activity, our private information as it pertains to cyberspace or are we talking about those who are out there who are trying to encroach on our security by way of the Internet, cyberspace, et cetera.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think they're more concerned with the latter because if you just read the newspaper every day, you read about intrusions every day against government computer systems, against the defense contractors. It's really quite troubling to think what information may be siphoned off.

I'll tell you, the president when he made that speech, said that he was going to be appointing a cyber czar to oversee the government efforts in this area. A cyber czar has not yet been appointed. The administration would say it's only been a couple months, give us time, we're looking for the right person. But I can tell you that within the cyber community, there's some discomfort that the wind might have gone out of the sails a bit on this one.

WHITFIELD: Could it also be an issue of the vetting process is under such scrutiny right now, particularly with this administration, really any administration, but as of recent this administration is saying we want to make sure we've got, you know, the double, triple, quadruple checks possible before we make an appointment?

MESERVE: Well, that is quite possible, but I don't know for certain that that's the factor here or whether they're just having trouble finding someone to take the job or if they just haven't found the right person.

WHITFIELD: All right, Josh, what are our viewers' concerns as it pertains to cyberspace, cyber terrorism? JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: One of the first things we hear is people want to know how to protect their own computers at home. In fact, let's show the screen where you can get in touch with us because what I want everyone to know is as the show goes on, there's also simultaneously a conversation going on right here. You've got Facebook and Twitter and that's our blog, CNN.com/Josh or /Fredricka, you'll get to the same place. And folks are giving each other ideas.

Dave, let me turn to you for a second because one thing people want to know is are there Web sites that are really good to go to that will help protect their own computers, their computer life from what could be this kind of terroristic intrusions? Are there some that you know of?

MERKEL: Well certainly, there are plenty of large security vendors that offer a number of different solutions for consumers from software to protect your desktop PC --

LEVS: But these kinds of things that you hear about that you can just kind of buy, McAfee, whatever it is, are they big enough to actually keep out something on the level of terrorism? Or do you need something beyond what most people have?

MERKEL: Well I think when we're talking about the issue of cyber terrorism, the average person at home worried about their desktop system really doesn't have a lot to be concerned about. When I think about cyber terrorism concerns, we're really looking at two broad categories, wanting to effect some kind of physical impact by affecting a computer system and then doing things like gathering intelligence and potentially financial activities to benefit the organization.

The average end user really is probably going to be concerned about more commodity threats like theft of their data, credit card numbers, privacy information. It's more a general cyber security risk than a cyber terrorism risk.

LEVS: So just to drill this home, let me tie up with this. Take a look, let's zoom in on the board quickly and I'll give it back to you, Fred. This is a story that we wrote earlier this year, I wrote this actually on CNN.com about when the president created this top job for guarding online security. Check out the date. That was May, right? Look at our report two months later, July 2009. Report finds government vulnerable to cyber attacks. There is that vulnerability. It is very important. Obviously it's a huge issue and a big task for the administration.

WHITFIELD: What do we do with that information, Dave?

MERKEL: Well, the challenge with cyber security is people think there should be some technical solution that magically makes it go away, and there's not. There's not a technical magic bullet that will instantly make all computers and networks secure. What's needed is the same kind of things we see in the physical world, diligence and awareness and attempts to detect and prevent attacks, but also the ability to respond should something occur. It's very, very similar to security problems in the physical world.

WHITFIELD: All right, Dave Merkel, thanks so much. Jeanne Meserve, Josh, we're going to take a short break. And when we come back, what about the direction of homeland security under the Obama administration? A round table discussion with Jeanne Meserve and our Ed Henry at the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: A new CNN/"Opinion Research Corporation" poll reveals what you're thinking about terrorism eight years after 9/11. It's part of the focus of our state of U.S. security -- 63 percent of you say you're confident in President Obama's ability to protect the country from terrorism, 26 percent are not confident. When asked whether a life in the U.S. will ever be completely back to normal after 9/11, 7 percent say it already is.

Thirty-two percent say it will be eventually, and 60 percent say life will never be back to normal, what people constitute as normal before 9/11.

So let's now break down homeland security, the direction of it under the Obama administration. Homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve is back with us. White House correspondent Ed Henry has joined us as well and Josh Levs is back with us as well with a lot of comments from people.

So Ed, I want to begin with you because I guess the concern or many are wondering this administration as it pertains to counterterrorism, is the greatest worry about the threat from abroad or the homegrown threat?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think both threats are very serious. It's interesting because our poll suggests that perhaps eight years later, some people may be complacent and some people may just feel more comfortable because there's been a lot of distance, thankfully, since the last terrorist attack.

But obviously the country always needs to be vigilant and the Obama administration talks endlessly when I talk to senior aides about how they are vigilant behind the scenes. We just don't see it because the focus obviously in recent months has been on health care. Before that it was the financial crisis, the stimulus package and the first 100 days. But national security, homeland security, for any administration post-9/11, Democratic or Republican, is front and center.

WHITFIELD: And so Jeanne, has it been a difficult transition from one administration to the next as it pertains to homeland security? New boss, some new direction, and then in some cases when you talk about the Department of Defense, not an incredibly sense of direction because we still have Secretary Gates. So is there any conflict, is there a difficult time for agencies getting along under a new leadership?

MESERVE: No, I don't think the transition has been particularly difficult. I know that Secretary Chertoff and Secretary Napolitano met several times before the inauguration to talk about the change of power. I get the feeling that it's been a fairly smooth transition. There were a few people who -- career people who stepped up into the lead positions at several of the agencies until new agency directors were appointed. They gave some sense of continuity.

So I don't think on that level there's been a huge departure. I think where you see it more strikingly is in the approach to the international problem where you see an administration that's decided to go into Afghanistan and try and get a hold of the terrorist problem in that country. I think also with the closing of Guantanamo Bay, that's clearly an effort to change global perceptions of the United States. I think that's where you see the real change.

WHITFIELD: I wonder, Jeanne, as you mention Afghanistan, if we're now moving into a more tenuous territory because this administration under the guise of Secretary Gates also saying we're now ready to invest more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, and many people need reminding that Afghanistan is the war that began immediately after 9/11.

So, Josh, soon I want to hear from some of the viewers as it pertains to that as well. But Ed, I wonder if there is going to be some potential friction between the White House -- what the White House wants, what Capitol Hill wants, what DOD is saying it wants.

HENRY: Definitely. There's already friction. I mean look, yesterday a top Democrat, Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said look, we need to hold back on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. We need to get the Afghan army to stand up. A lot of experts, both parties saying that may not be realistic because their army hasn't stood up. We have had to supply more U.S. troops.

And I think the challenge for the president in part is when you go back to the campaign, he kept saying that he would run a smarter war on terror, a smarter approach to dealing with terrorism than George W. Bush did, and a lot of that revolved around putting the troops, dealing with the war in Afghanistan and pulling back from Iraq. Barack Obama as a candidate kept saying that Iraq was a war of choice, Afghanistan a war of necessity because, as you say, it started right after 9/11. That's where al Qaeda first got a safe haven.

Now he's in a little bit of a box because the situation on the ground has gotten worse in Afghanistan. He may have to send even more troops. He sent 21,000 more already and the base of the Democratic Party is really concerned. People like Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, saying they don't necessarily want to send more troops. They see the public polls going down in term of approval for that work. Big, big dilemma.

WHITFIELD: And Josh, this is the viewers' opportunity, last chance to ask questions to our Jeanne and Ed on their concerns about security in this country.

LEVS: Yes, I'll go through this fast, but I want to show you at the blog, CNN.com/Josh or CNN.com/Fredricka, people are debating this. Joyce, the question, some people are talking about, are we any safer? Joyce, you can see there saying, "Yes, this country is the safest because of who is president."

James of Houston goes on to say, "Absolutely not. I don't think so. It will take another 9/11 even for Democrats finally to realize just how evil and dangerous," he goes on to say, "these terrorists are," in his view.

So we're having this debate and we certainly welcome you to join in. Really quickly, Jeanne, let's show this question from Jason because so many people picked up on something you said earlier. And I got this from Jason on my Facebook page. He is saying "Airlines are still vulnerable to a number of attacks." He says, "In Israel, airport security is $100,000 per year psychologists and profilers. Here they're $7.50 an hour x-ray machine operators."

I haven't in fact checked those numbers, but you know the image that these TSA folks have. Really quickly, are they trained well enough to be giving us the kind of protection we need?

MESERVE: Obviously, they need to be trained better. They may have to be paid better so you get a more educated and higher caliber person in the job. And obviously they're looking at the Israelis. They're the gold standard, but they do a lot of things at their airport that would never be tolerated in the United States. So you can't exactly take their model and impose it here.

WHITFIELD: All right. Ed Henry, senior White House correspondent, homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve, Josh Levs, thank you as well. And thanks to former inspector general Clark Irvin with us earlier, Aziz Huq with the University of Chicago, as well as Dave Merkel and Mary Fetchet. Thanks to everybody for your participation in examining the state of the U.S. security and of course thanks to you for sending us so many comments and questions as it pertains to national security.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We leave you now with some images, indelible images, last night paying tribute to the many who lost their lives on 9/11. This image from Lower Manhattan.