Watch CBSN Live

Ten years after 9/11: Is nation any safer?

After 9/11, the need for heightened national security was obvious - but are we any safer 10 years later?

On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the 9/11 Memorial and said the potential for another devastating terror assault "remains very real."

Special section: 9/11 10 years later

For more on the nation's security today, "The Early Show" met with two men who had important roles in shaping our nation's counter-terrorism strategy, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, former director of National Intelligence.

Hayden told "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge, "We are infinitely safer today than we were on 9/11 against the kind of terrorist attack we saw 10 years ago, that mass casualty attack mounted against an iconic target which is the kind of thing that al Qaeda always aspires to do."

What is the biggest threat today?

McConnell said it's in the country's "soft underbelly."

He said, "It's all connected by the Internet, and there's a huge level of cyber-vulnerability in the nation. So if the right force, right set of players, attacked us in the right place at the right time, it could have catastrophic effect."

McConnell said the country is being actively targeted online "every day."

As for al Qaeda, Hayden says, "The new al Qaeda flavor of the month isn't (a) complex plot. It's simple, self-radicalized, individuals, non-complex, maybe a little bit like Mumbai, where you saw an attack with great strategic effect conducted by about a dozen folks with automatic weapons and cell phones. We need to be aware that that's the new kind of threat."

Wragge asked McConnell about The Patriot Act, saying, "A necessity or an infringement on people's civil liberties?"

McConnell responded, "It depends on your point of view. It could become very political very quickly, but from my point of view, if we are to protect the nation, particularly from something like a suicide bomber from outside coming in or a lone wolf on the inside, you need those authorities to be able to collect the information to make an assessment, to be able to prevent."

Hayden says the "flavor of the threat" has changed, saying, "The data on which we rely to counter that threat is shifting its weight. It's shifting its weight from being largely foreign-based to being more domestic-based."

Weapons of mass destruction, McConnell said, are a continued threat today.

He said, "Chemical, biological, particularly biological, if they had access and if they could get it released inside the country."

Hayden said, "Future al Qaeda threats, future al Qaeda attacks against the United States are going to be less complex, less well-organized, less likely to succeed, less lethal, even if they do succeed. They're just going to be more numerous, and we have to respond to that."

The biggest challenge for U.S. intelligence, McConnell said, is "to prevent an event not understand it after it has happened."

Hayden added, "That's the fundamental challenge of any warning equation. People have written about Pearl Harbor point out that was the fundamental issue, getting the hard points and pulling them out of the background noise. We collect so much now. We have so many people working on this problem that that has become the issue of the day."

He continued, "I think the most fundamental challenge right now is to understand the war is not over, even with the death of bin Laden, that future attacks are certain - not even likely - and that we don't overreact to future attacks."