Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Billions spent, but targets remain vulnerable

Billions of dollars have been spent shielding the United States from terrorism, yet many cities, towns, schools, power plants and other facilities remain vulnerable.
From chemical plants to ports, gaping holes in security might undermine the nation’s war on terrorism.
Three years after terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, debate centers on whether the nation’s approach is working.
Many experts and military officials offer an unqualified “yes” to the question of whether the nation is safer.
“Because of what we have done since 9/11 is why you’ve not seen a follow-up attack here,” Gen. Ralph “Ed” Eberhart, who heads Colorado Springs-based U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. vYet much remains undone, such as equipping firefighters, police and medics; inspecting shipping containers; securing chemical plants; and improving border patrol.
That said, some foreign affairs and defense experts wonder whether the nation has its priorities straight, noting there’s not enough money to protect everything without saddling the country with massive debt.
“Lawrence of Arabia said you cannot be strong everywhere,” said John Pike, who runs defense think tank “There’s a pretty good chunk of irrationality in the whole thing (homeland security).”
Daniel Goure, a military analyst from Washington, D.C., and former defense official, said, “It’s an opportunity to spend blindly. We can be in danger of breaking the bank in efforts to stop terrorism.”
No one disputes the stakes are enormous.
A dirty bomb detonated in an urban area could result in $1 trillion in property loss and commerce disruption, Goure said.
But does the potential threat warrant trying to shield every school, water plant and hospital in cities and towns across the nation?
Many say no, it’s time to curtail the spending spree and focus on high-risk targets.
Compatibility of radio communications among local police and firefighters, state and federal authorities hasn’t been achieved and creates a gap most experts agree hamstrings rescue efforts.
More than 42,000 local first responders have formed the First Response Coalition to lobby Congress to solve radio interference and compatibility problems by selling radio frequencies to private users. Such a sale would raise as much as $10 billion toward the $18 billion cost of nationwide compatibility.
Radio communication failures were blamed for firefighters’ and police officers’ deaths during the Sept. 11 attacks when they couldn’t talk to one another because of crowded frequencies and lack of connectivity.
Congressional hearings are under way, but both issues predate Sept. 11 by years. No performance standards have been set, and the roles of local, state and federal governments haven’t been defined in addressing the issue.
First responders nationwide also lack equipment and training. A 2003 Council on Foreign Relations study was ominously titled, “Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared.”
The study found half the firefighters on shift don’t have radios, twothirds don’t have breathing apparatus and 90 percent of departments aren’t equipped to respond to a building collapse.
Most public health labs lack basic equipment, and most cities can’t determine types of hazardous materials emergency responders face.
Federal, state and local spending, estimated at $53 billion to $103 billion during the next five years, will fall short by $98.4 billion in meeting critical first responder needs, the study found.
Less than 10 percent of the containers arriving at the United States’ ports are inspected.
The Maritime Transportation Security Act, which took effect in July, requires vessels and facilities to write and follow security plans, assess vulnerability and screen for hazards.
Customs officials are perched at ports throughout the world to analyze risk of shipping containers at points of origin, and the U.S. Coast Guard has beefed up personnel to 41,300 from 36,000 before Sept. 11.
Yet container inspection rate remains low.
“They’re nowhere near where they want to be,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Kevin Eldridge, whose oversight spans the California coast.
A major explosion at Los Angeles/Long Beach Port would devastate commerce nationwide because 43 percent of the nation’s shipping containers come through that port — one of the largest container ports in the world, he said.
Chemical manufacturing and storage facilities aren’t protected uniformly against theft and attack.
A 1999 law and a December 2003 presidential directive ordered assessments of chemical storage facilities to determine how vulnerable they are and what to do about it. No one has assessed security, however, and no standards are in place. No federal laws require chemical facilities to assess vulnerabilities or safeguard storage areas.
Protection is important because chemicals pose the third highest risk for deaths, behind biological and atomic attacks, the Brookings Institution reported in 2002.
The report said an attack on a chemical plant could cause 10,000 casualties. Because chemical and biological weapons are hard to get from other countries, terrorists could turn to industrial chemicals and common poisons, the institute said.
The U.S. Army’s Surgeon General’s Office has said as many as 2.4 million people could require medical treatment from a toxic chemical release.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that 123 chemical plants throughout the nation each could expose more than a million people to sickness or death if a security breach led to a release. Some 700 facilities could threaten at least 100,000 each.
Those statistics don’t include thousands more that store such potentially deadly substances as fertilizer, which can be combined with other agents to make bombs like the one that blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
The nation’s public health system is ill-equipped to cope with such a largescale chemical disaster, said Rex Archer, college professor, government advisor and president-elect of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
“Most health departments are not 24/7 operations,” he said. “Most don’t even fund overtime. Are we improving our preparedness as fast as we should? I don’t think we are. You can’t have homeland security without the underlying health care structure.”
Although many chemical handlers voluntarily secure their facilities, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has said that’s not enough.
The American Chemistry Council’s members, for example, are required to appraise vulnerability and adopt security measures, but they own or operate 7 percent of the 15,000 facilities that use, store or manufacture toxic or flammable chemicals the EPA has deemed dangerous.
Legislation to regulate chemicals has stalled as some industry officials argue security might be too costly.
Visitors from other countries aren’t consistently screened for terrorist ties.
The US-VISIT program, a $10 billion contract, recently was awarded to Accenture Ltd., an offshore company initially called Andersen Consulting when it was formed by partners in Arthur Andersen LLC, the accounting firm disgraced in the Enron debacle.
The program is operating at some of the nation’s entry points — 115 airports, 14 seaports and few land borders.
The largest nondefense contract awarded by the federal government, the fingerprint-scanning system has drawn fire from experts who say it doesn’t thoroughly match visitors’ fingerprints against international terrorist watch lists.
Department of Homeland Security officials say time will improve the system.
“It’s something that over time will be upgraded and expanded and will ultimately try to capture complete travel records when a foreign traveler arrives and departs the U.S.,” said DHS spokeswoman Kimberly Wiseman.
Although the system has resulted in 700 to 900 “hits” of immigration violators and those wanted for crimes such as rape and murder, Wiseman admitted it hasn’t snagged a terrorist “that I am aware of.”
Wiseman also admitted visitors to general aviation airports aren’t subject to similar scrutiny. “We don’t have those federal inspection areas for private jets,” she said, adding DHS is considering adding mobile units.
Also, the US-VISIT contract requires only a portion of the nation’s land border entry points be monitored by the end of this year.
Recent government intelligence reports have suggested the porous Mexican border might be attractive to terrorists staging in Latin America.
A U.S. House aide who recently toured the Mexican border said she was startled to find many border guards without radios.
As for the US-VISIT system monitoring alien departures, part of its mandate, just three pilot projects are under way — in Baltimore, Miami and Chicago.
The National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism has mounted two Web sites to provide first responders with training information, but federal authorities say no one tracks who gets what kind of training for what kind of emergency.
That means there’s no list to consult in a crisis to know who is prepared and for what. Dispatching untrained people could complicate rescue efforts, emergency workers say.
The Department of Homeland Security, formed in early 2003, hasn’t figured out how to impose security measures on the private sector, which remains largely unprepared although it controls 85 percent of the nation’s infrastructure.
“Private-sector preparedness is not a luxury,” the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States said in its July report. “It is a cost of doing business in the post-9/11 world. It is ignored at a tremendous potential cost in lives, money, and national security.”
Some issues might become more clear in coming months as government watchdogs report what’s been done and not done since Sept. 11.
The General Accountability Office will report soon on the following: the effectiveness of the government’s container security programs, how grant programs dole out money and how it’s spent, vulnerabilities at general aviation airports, and air cargo security procedures.
Charles Pena, defense policy studies director at Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington, said the question isn’t whether the nation is spending enough but whether it’s spending wisely.
“No matter how much money we spend, we can’t build a perfect defense against future terrorist attacks,” he said.
“It’s an unrealistic expectation.”
Those on the front lines of the war on terror, however, are more pragmatic.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Eberhart, Northern Command’s chief, “and the minute we say the status quo is good, we become predictable, and the enemy is going to sock us in the eye again.”

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