9/11 panel's plan has a big price tag

Beyond spy-agency reshuffle, steps urged by commission would cost billions in ports, at the border, overseas.

New terror alerts are reinforcing the 9/11 commission's "urgent" call to reinforce America's defenses, but they are also a reminder that securing the homeland involves a difficult balancing act of money versus safety and liberty versus lockdown.

The panel itself concedes that the price tag of its plan is uncertain - and large. President Bush Monday embraced some of the recommendations, including the call for a new national intelligence director. Democratic challenger John Kerry, for his part, has embraced the commission's 40-odd recommendations wholesale.

But the panel's overall plan goes far beyond revamping US intelligence agencies, and as congressional panels take up the challenge this week, policymakers are beginning to confront the issue of cost. Securing railroads? Prudent measures could run 44 or more times what's now being spent. Securing US borders? The commission concedes the cost could be huge.

"Look, there's no magic solution here, and every move you make has some advantages and has some disadvantages," commission vice chair Lee Hamilton conceded at the first Senate hearing on the panel's recommendations on Friday.

For all the uncertainty about the best way to spend limited resources, Washington has clearly embraced the notion that action is needed. Heightened security on Wall Street and in other financial centers Monday, based on a specific threat, is amplifying the sense of urgency. But the effort promises to strain already-tight federal budgets, and could challenge Americans to put up with a new level of intrusion in their daily lives. At the Democratic National Convention last week, for example, some locals balked at the notion of bag searches on the Boston subway system.

Earlier this year, President Bush asked lawmakers to increase the Department of Homeland Security budget to $28.3 billion for fiscal year 2005, a 4.6 percent increase from last year. Intelligence-agency budgets are classified, but the total is believed to exceed $40 billion a year.

Planes, trains, and ships

Transportation is one major area where the commission sees difficult trade-offs.

"Hard choices must be made in allocating limited resources," he panel's report said. "The US government should identify and evaluate the transportation assets that need to be protected, set risk-based priorities for defending them, [and] select the most ... cost-effective ways of doing so."

The commission does not include cost estimates for its recommendations, scores of federal reports provide guidance.

Railroads. Since the March bombing of passenger trains in Spain, lawmakers have been pressing for greater attention to rail traffic, whose volume of ridership is over five times that of civil aviation. In response, the passenger rail industry is requesting $5.2 billion to upgrade to meet federal security mandates, and an additional $2.5 billion in additional annual security funding. That's 44 times as much as is currently being spent on transit security, according to a July 21 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Ports. More than 6 million marine containers enter US ports each year, and only a small fraction are physically inspected. In addition, about 13 million containers arrive by truck or rail from Canada or Mexico. The Coast Guard estimates that it will cost at least $7.5 billion to comply with existing upgrades mandated by the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, and "major vulnerabilities" remain, says the General Accounting Office.

Border security. More than 500 million people annually cross US borders legally, 350 million noncitizens. Another 500,000 or more enter illegally. The 9/11 commission calls for a biometric screening system that is integrated into a larger network of screening points that includes the US transportation system and access to facilities such as nuclear reactors. Since 9/11, the US has built the first phase of a biometric screening program, called USVISIT. The system takes digital photographs and prints, but covers only those who need visas to travel to the US.

The commission recommends much broader coverage as an essential priority: "Americans should not be exempt from carrying biometric passports or otherwise enabling their identities to be securely verified when they enter the US, nor should Canadians or Mexicans." The panel also says the US should help other countries adopt a global standard for passports that includes digital fingerprints - "an essential investment in our national security."

Border security will be one of the biggest ticket items in the report, commission chairman Tom Kean told senators on Friday, without estimating a cost.

Schools in Pakistan?

Another tradeoff will be spending at home vs. spending abroad.

In his acceptance speech last week, Senator Kerry said: "We shouldn't be letting 95 percent of our container ships come into our ports without ever being physically inspected. We shouldn't be leaving nuclear and chemical plants without enough protection. And we shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America."

Yet his blanket endorsement of the commission recommendations also includes calls to build schools and improve economic opportunities in Muslim states - among other possibly costly efforts to promote an America-friendly climate abroad.

The new border regime also raises concerns of erosion of privacy and freedom, frankly discussed in the report. While the notion of a national identity card sparked furious debate before 9/11, the panel's recommendation of biometric identifiers on US borders and a national standard for drivers licenses is, so far, arousing little resistance on Capitol Hill. "Unless we intend to turn this country into a North American version of North Korea, we're going to be vulnerable at multiple points of attack," says Ted Carpenter of the CATO institute. "That's the tradeoff."

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