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Striving to improve security efforts

By Robert Schlesinger and Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 9/9/2002

Passenger alert
At Oakland International Airport, signs inform travelers to expect delays at security checkpoints. (KRT Photo)

WASHINGTON - The sheer volume and breadth of activity related to domestic security since Sept. 11 is almost overwhelming.

Fighter jets stand at the ready to intercept airliners in the event of perceived trouble. Security levels have risen around such disparate sites as nuclear power plants and vacation cruise ships. Since March, the federal government has maintained a color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System (current condition: yellow, meaning an elevated state of alert).

The Transportation Security Administration has been organized to guard air travel and is being consolidated with 21 other federal agencies in a huge Cabinet-level bureaucracy to protect the United States. A new White House domestic security director is charged with opening lines of communication and cooperation among federal, state, and corporate entities. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent or budgeted. Even the Department of Interior now has a full-time intelligence section.

It's not a bad start, according to terrorism and domestic security specialists, who say, ''Now do better.''

''We're in significantly better shape than we were pre-9/11,'' said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Homeland and Health Security at the University of Maryland. ''But the promise that has been made, the covenant with the American people on the government's ability to respond to these events, is nowhere where it should be, and there's been a lot more talk than action.''

The legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security passed the House in July but is bogged down in the Senate by what former Colorado senator Gary Hart calls a ''dumb debate'' over civil service rules that would govern a fraction of the 170,000 government employees assigned to the agency. Hart, cochairman of a bipartisan commission that in early 2001 called for such a department, believes that the nation is not much safer than it was a year ago and blames President Bush and Congress for moving too slowly and losing momentum.

''This department should have been established months ago,'' said Hart, a Democrat who now practices law in Denver. ''We are in the anomalous situation of being at war without any sense of urgency.''

One year after the attacks, government officials, security specialists, and most of the public remain concerned about terrorist threats. The number of potential targets in an open society of 288 million people is daunting.

The threat could be an attack on a nuclear plant or it could be crop dusters spraying chemical or biological weapons, or it could be cyberterrorism attacking computers that run power grids.

The Bush administration has promulgated a list of 84 strategic initiatives necessary to protect critical infrastructure, such as nuclear and chemical plants, among other inviting targets. Also, the federal government has started stockpiling vaccine doses for smallpox and has increased the number of ''push packs'' - large assemblies of medical supplies strategically hidden around the country - from eight to 11.

''What I haven't heard is anyone say that we missed anything,'' said Richard A. Falkenrath, senior director for policy and plans in the White House Office of Homeland Security. ''If there's anything in there that someone says, `This is irrelevant to homeland security,' no one has told me yet.''

But, Falkenrath admits that the challenge is anticipating an enemy that follows no pattern.

''As defenders, we're always at a disadvantage because the terrorist isn't going to do what he did before,'' said Dave McIntyre, a retired Army colonel and deputy director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security, a policy institute. ''We have to be perfect all the time, and they only have to be lucky once.''

Because US borders are the first line of defense, literally and metaphorically, they have drawn a great deal of attention, including a crackdown on illegal entrants, especially those of Middle Eastern origin, with more than 400 deported.

At the same time, the various sections of government handling immigration are now supposed to better share information, specifically gaining access to the FBI's criminal database. Visa policies have been tightened, and the administration has increased the number of customs and INS agents. Also, the administration has revived stagnant programs to keep tabs on entry and exit of foreign nationals and track foreign students once here.

''Clearly the agencies that were involved in border security operations are coordinating their activities better,'' said Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council staff member in the Clinton administration.

But some immigration specialists question how much these moves will help security.

''There's some investments we're making that will have only the most tenuous impact on antiterrorism efforts,'' said David Martin, a former general counsel at the INS.

The government has heightened port security and instituted rules to make it easier for customs inspectors to analyze commercial shipments coming into the country. The government is also in the process of making sure that all customs agents will have personal radiation detectors in order to ensure no illicit radiological materials are smuggled in.

But the volume of cargo at US ports makes screening a massive undertaking, plus the government is under pressure from importers and the travel industry not to let security slow the flow of goods and people into the United States. Admiral James M. Loy, the new chief of the Transportation Security Administration, acknowledged the tension in his recent announcment that airline passengers can carry coffee cups through metal detectors.

''We are working hard to balance world-class customer service with the need for world-class security,'' said Loy, the former commandant of the US Coast Guard, whose agency oversees protection of the air, rail, roads, and waterways.

The TSA has concentrated on air safety, and it's off to a shaky start. Aviation consultants and members of Congress say too many hazards still elude airport screeners, too few flights carry air marshals, flight attendants lack antiterrorist training, cockpit doors haven't been strengthened enough, and the Dec. 31 deadline for testing all baggage in explosive-detection devices won't be met.

The Senate showed its impatience with the TSA last week when it followed the House and passed a measure allowing commercial pilots to have handguns in cockpits.

''We cannot sit on our hands and let [Sept. 11] happen again,'' Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said during the floor debate.

Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, says policy makers should be patient; none of the federal government's major achievements - reducing air and water pollution, landing on the moon, developing vaccines, building the interstate highway system - happened overnight. It could take a decade for the Department of Homeland Securty, the largest government reorganization of people, functions, and cultures in 50 years, to find and fulfill its mission.

''The new department is only a means to an end, and it is being oversold as an end in itself,'' Light said.

The president has threatened to veto the legislation creating the department if Congress won't waive civil service rules and give the Secretary of Homeland Security flexibility to hire, fire, and adjust the pay of employees. Bush also wants department units that deal with sensitive security issues to be exempt from union agreements.

Senate Democrats, with labor union allies, say they cannot accept such provisions. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said last week the impasse could delay passage of the bill for days or weeks.

Meanwhile, some analysts say homeland security should focus less on Washington and more on first-responders: local police, fire, and health officials. In many communities across the country, state and local officials have taken the challenge to prepare for the next attack.

''There are pioneer projects and pilot projects and efforts to reorganize that are just springing up all over the country,'' said Philip Zelikow, a National Security Council staffer in the first Bush administration and a current member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

The federal government has provided $5 billion to the states for bioterrorism training and to develop plans to counter a bioterror attack, but specialists say it is not moving quickly enough.

''Yeah, there's been lots of money dedicated to this issue, but it seems not to be trickling down,'' said Juliette Kayyem, the executive director of the Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Of special concern, several public security specialists said, are public hospitals, which are not prepared to deal with a major biological or chemical attack.

''In terms of our hospitals, it's a nightmare,'' said the University of Maryland's Greenberger. ''Were there to be an aerosolized spray like smallpox in a crop duster in a downtown city like Baltimore, I think all hell would break loose.''

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com. Mary Leonard can be reached at mleonard@globe.com

This story ran on page A8 of the Boston Globe on 9/9/2002.
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