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Bush says today's security would have made Sept. 11 attacks harder

ATLANTA (AP) _ Terrorists today would have a tougher time plotting and carrying out attacks like the ones of Sept. 11 because of security improvements in the past five years, President Bush said Thursday.

There's no way to know if the attacks would have been prevented by all the changes, Bush said, but he contended the nation is safer than in September 2001.

Keeping his focus on national security leading up to Monday's anniversary of the attacks and November's congressional elections, Bush said more still needs to be done to stop the terrorist threat.

He pressed Congress to take quick action on two new laws _ legislation proposed Wednesday by the White House that would allow terror suspects to be tried by a military commission and a bill that would give specific authority for his anti-terror eavesdropping program.

Bush initially resisted eavesdropping legislation on the grounds that the once top-secret program was already legal and that legislation could expose sensitive details.

But some leading members of Congress disagreed, and a federal judge in Detroit ruled last month that the program violated rights to free speech and privacy as well as constitutional separation of powers.

``A series of protracted legal challenges would put a heavy burden on this critical and vital program,'' Bush said in a speech to the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation. ``The surest way to keep the program is to get explicit approval from the United States Congress.''

Bush said his Atlanta audience was familiar with the pain of terrorism from the Centennial Olympic Park bombing 10 years ago.

He said the United States has been making progress against terrorists in the past five years, beginning with the unsuccessful mission of the terrorists on United Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania when passengers fought back. ``They delivered America its first victory in the war on terror,'' the president said to sustained applause.

``Many Americans look at these events and ask the same question: Five years after 9/11, are we safer?'' Bush said. ``The answer is: Yes, America is safer.''

Bush said that's because his administration has filled gaps in the country's defenses that the terrorists exploited.

He used the example of two hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who had come to the attention of the CIA before they helped crash American Flight 77 into the Pentagon but still were able to enter the United States.

Today, Bush said, intelligence officials would put known suspects like al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar on a watchlist that would be accessible at airports, consulates, border crossings and for state and local law enforcement. The men would have face-to-face interviews today to get visas and would be fingerprinted and screened against a database of known or suspected terrorists.

Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were preparing for the attack while living in California, making phone calls to planners overseas. Bush said today, the National Security Agency monitors international calls ``such as those between the al-Qaida operatives secretly in the United States and planners of the 9/11 attacks.''

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, al-Hazmi, al-Mihdhar and 17 others were allowed to board their flights even though some of them were flagged by the passenger prescreening system. At the time, rules required only that their checked baggage be held until they boarded the planes.

Some of the hijackers also set off metal detectors. Security screeners manually checked them with handheld devices, but allowed them to board without verifying what had set off the alarms.

Bush said improved screening by the Transportation Security Administration, an increased number of federal air marshals, hardened cockpit doors and pilots trained to carry firearms would help stop a similar plot today.

``Even if all the steps I've outlined this morning had been taken before 9/11, no one can say for sure that we would have prevented the attack,'' Bush said. ``We can say that if America had these reforms in place in 2001, the terrorists would have found it harder to plan and finance their operations, harder to slip into the country undetected, and harder to board the airplanes and take control of the cockpits, and succeed in striking their targets.''
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