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Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists

Regulatory initiatives have been delayed or watered down because of concerns by industry groups that say a cure may be worse than the illness. In June, Homeland Security announced it had completed background checks of 2.7 million commercial driver's license holders authorized to haul hazardous materials, but it culled only 29 with potential terrorist connections.

Another fingerprint-based background-check program, which has been opposed by truckers, has been delayed nine months. The program, now scheduled to begin Jan. 1, would require states to collect fingerprints from hazmat drivers to undergo FBI checks as well, part of a USA Patriot Act requirement.

A D.C. police officer finishes inspecting a truck near the IMF building in Northwest Washington. Last week's orange alert bulletin noted that "there is no standard type of vehicle associated with" a car bomb and urged special attention to limousines as well, which often get close access to buildings. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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"People ask, 'What's the big deal?' But a one-hour delay [for the nation's truck drivers] costs the entire truck industry $500 million," Nightingale said.

Similar sensitivity limits the controls of bomb components. Last month, the fertilizer industry urged ammonium nitrate sellers to voluntarily track sales and require buyers to show identification. But it resists any government regulation, and only Nevada and South Carolina have laws requiring tracking.

The move followed a history of voluntary initiatives. In 1996, the Fertilizer Institute and ATF unveiled a "Be Aware for America" campaign after the Oklahoma City bombing, distributing 30,000 brochures and asking industry members to report suspicious activities.

In 2001, they launched another education campaign, "Be Secure for America," encouraging manufacturers, distributors and retailers to prevent theft. In April, after the arrest of alleged terrorists in England, ATF met again with industry officials and rolled out "America's Security Begins with You." This time, the mission was to raise awareness and ask for voluntary reporting of thefts or unexplained losses.

Kathy Mathers, spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, said most fertilizer is sold in rural outposts. "These retail outlets and employees know their customers. A customer they don't know . . . will raise suspicions," she said.

On another front, the government last year began requiring all people receiving explosives to obtain a permit from the ATF -- "a major change," said Audrey Stucko, chief of the ATF's firearms and explosives services division.

The Safe Explosives Act requires users and sellers of explosives to submit photographs and fingerprints and undergo criminal background checks. About 12,300 licenses and permits have been issued by the agency.

At the end of the day, the nation's security experts say they expect terrorists will get their hands on the weapon and that keeping bombers away from buildings is their best hope.

The FBI's Mason, whose office is handling about 800 terrorism cases, warns that the public is "being fed a false bill of goods" if it is led to believe that every terrorist will be stopped. He described security measures as a "net that stretches from coast to coast" and government efforts as an attempt to "shrink the mesh."

"Despite all the reforms and changes being made at the FBI and other agencies, the best we can hope to do is shrink the size of the mesh, allowing fewer things to pass through," Mason said.

Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Don Pohlman contributed to this report.

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