ST. LOUIS - Seven years after the terrorist attacks, Missouri has responded and become a safer place, the state's homeland security adviser said Wednesday.
But Mark James, who oversees homeland security and is director of the state Department of Public Safety, warns that potential terrorists are always looking for new ways to wreak havoc, and the state must always keep its guard up.
"I think we are definitely safer," James said, on the eve of the anniversary of the attacks. "As a country as we harden ourselves against vulnerabilities in one area our enemies are constantly looking for new vulnerabilities."
Terrorism expert Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux, a political science professor at Saint Louis University, said anti-terrorism efforts in Missouri and around the nation have made strides, but cautioned you can never be completely safe from an attack.
"They pick the target," Leguey-Feilleux said. "We prepare by having stronger safety at airports. Well OK, they go elsewhere. Terrorism is part of our modern environment, and it's very likely not going to become less so."
Missouri was the first state to create an Office of Homeland Security in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, opening the office just two weeks after the attacks. In 2005, Gov. Matt Blunt placed the office under the Department of Public Safety.
That move was crucial because it gave the Homeland Security office access to the people, facilities and services of everything from the Highway Patrol to the Water Patrol to the National Guard, James said.
In December 2005, the state opened the Missouri Information Analysis Center, where intelligence analysts work around the clock on issues impacting public safety - from dealing with terrorism-related issues to hazardous chemical spills to criminal investigations. For example, the center played a key role in helping track down those responsible for a series of cattle theft cases in several counties.
Looking ahead, James said one of the biggest concerns is the almost infinite number of targets terrorists could pursue.
"It all concerns me," he said. "Obviously, agriculture is our main economic lifeblood as a state and vulnerabilities in our food chain are a concern. But there are many others."
Leguey-Feilleux cited the U.S. government's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as evidence that the nation still has a long way to go in handling a major crisis.
"Katrina had nothing to do with terrorism, but it had to do with responding to a calamity," he said. "No matter what the calamity is caused by, if we don't know how to respond it shows we lack preparedness."
As for fighting terrorism, "Vigilance is still important, not paranoia," Leguey-Feilleux said. "We have to keep thinking."