10/22/2014 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Are We Safer Now? Yes, But Not as Much as We Could Be

Wherever I go, the question is almost always the same, and it's to be expected, considering my past co-chairmanship of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission.

The question: Are we safer now?

Compared to when the 9/11 Commission issued its final report just over a decade ago -- a document that identified several major intelligence gaps among other critical national security failures -- the answer would be an unqualified, but also complicated, yes.

Let me explain.

Any assessment of the current state of our national security must first begin with the metric that most counts: Have we endured another 9/11-style attack? Here thankfully, the answer is no, even if our record against terrorist attacks hasn't been perfect.

Despite instances such as the Boston Marathon bombings and killing spree at Fort Hood, we should recognize the successes we've had in our ongoing battle against terrorism. While we continue to live in an extremely dangerous world, we've accomplished a great deal in a relatively short amount of time to make us safer, and we have a far greater understanding of the overall terrorist threat than we did prior to 9/11.

Our government has enacted a number of substantial and significant changes, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, an outfit charged with the enormous task of securing our borders from those seeking to harm Americans. It is now the third-largest cabinet department with more than 200,000 employees and around a $60 billion budget.

Additionally, over the last decade, we have significantly shored up several of the institutions that bore some responsibility for failing to prevent 9/11. The FBI has vastly expanded its mission, adding counterterrorism to law enforcement, while our Treasury Department has overseen a vigorous and effective effort to contain terrorist financing. Our intelligence community, which encompasses 17 different agencies, has undergone a massive reorganization in the last decade and, through increased collaboration, is doing a far greater job than it did before 9/11 of identifying suspicious individuals. Everyone's favorite tool in fighting terrorism is intelligence, and we've dramatically enhanced our abilities in this area, securing -- and sharing -- key information that has enabled us to disrupt terrorist plots overseas before they hit our homeland.

Since 9/11, we've also become better protectors of our national infrastructure. We've enacted various new safety measures across our transportation systems, including, most notably, in airline security and monitoring suspicious air and ship cargo. Border security, a regular topic in the national news as of late, has also been hugely improved. At the same time, cybersecurity remains a major vulnerability, a reflection of just how dependent our nation's financial institutions and transportation systems are on the Internet.

In all of these areas, it's a work in progress, and the struggle against terrorism is far from over. We have entered a new and perilous phase. In recent months, we have witnessed the horrible atrocities committed by ISIS, and there are other lesser known groups out there seeking to commit similar offenses. All of these groups share a common thread -- a hatred for the U.S. And while they might not be currently fixated on or capable of striking within our borders, they pose a threat to our outposts overseas, including both our hard (military facilities) and soft (civilians and businesses) targets.

The threat we face looks quite different than it did in 2001. It is more decentralized and complex. We are confronted by the various affiliates of Al Qaeda, and now ISIS has emerged as the preeminent terrorist group in the world.

But while ISIS is extremely dangerous, it is important not to overemphasize the threat this group poses. Our government and intelligence community have indicated they possess no credible information suggesting an ISIS-led plan to attack our homeland.

At the same time, the national security experts with whom I've recently visited have indicated that Islamic extremism is almost certainly stronger today than it was in the last decade. Its rise, they say, is partly a result of power vacuums in ungoverned spaces that have sprung up in wake of the Arab Spring, the wave of revolutionary demonstrations and protests that rolled through the Arab world in 2011 and 2012, as well as an endless supply of disaffected young people who are being recruited as fighters. In a world full of expanding chaos and turmoil, fertile ground exists for the recruitment of terrorists determined to strike us.

All of this suggests we cannot afford to be complacent and let our guard down. Indeed, much work remains to be done to sufficiently fortify our nation against potential attacks.

Make no mistake: preparing ourselves for emergent attacks will not be an easy task. It will require renewed public awareness of an ongoing and very real threat, the support of the American Muslim community and a recognition that, despite a massive law enforcement effort and layered defenses that have made our nation a much harder target to hit than it was on 9/11, the first line of defense may often be not the first responder, but the American people.

We all need to be alert to the possibility of attacks and to unusual behavior around us. And we will all have to learn how to take a punch, which most of the experts predict will be thrown at some point.

Are we safer now? Again, the answer is a complicated yes. Could we be safer than we are? Without a doubt. That's not a reflection of our post 9/11 record. That's simply the stark reality of a changed world in which we can no longer expect to be perfectly protected.


Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.