America finds gaps in security hard to close
Federal, state, and local governments lag in emergency preparedness, a report finds.
Nearly five years after 9/11, the United States remains far too vulnerable to natural disaster and major attack.Skip to next paragraph
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That's the consensus of security experts and a new federal report released Friday. Most states and local authorities lag in emergency planning, the report found. At the same time, the federal government is still struggling to close big security gaps in airline passenger screening and port security and at chemical plants, these experts say.
The reasons are many, they add, but a crucial one is American industry's limited security efforts. An estimated 85 percent of critical infrastructure is in private hands. But the Bush administration has largely resisted mandating the minimum security standards for business.
"What we've done at this point is look to the private sector to set their own security standards – and if they're doing it, they're doing it very, very slowly," says Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. "It's not working very well, so maybe we have to think more seriously about government imposing standards."
The result? The nation's guard is down, critics say, or at least not what it should be.
"We haven't come very far at all in terms of credible security that would deter a determined terrorist from going after the things most valuable and vulnerable," says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
The chemical industry, for example, has adopted voluntary standards yet remains highly vulnerable. The risk is so high that if a worst-case scenario occurred at any of 123 US chemical plants, the resulting release of toxic gases could put 1 million people at risk of exposure, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in April.
While the GAO noted some progress in chemical security, it reported that only one-sixth of 15,000 facilities with large quantities of dangerous chemicals are covered by federal security requirements. And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has no authority to require minimum standards. In March, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress he needed legislative authority to mandate minimum standards.
Federal standards would create a "level playing field," says Mr. Hamilton, who calls the move long overdue. At the moment, companies that adopt tough security measures put themselves at a cost disadvantage to those who do not.
"Everyone in the business community knows that we're just a single event away from the federal government jumping in with both feet to tell us how to do it," Dr. Flynn says. So taking unilateral steps, which might not square with future federal mandates, looks risky, he adds. "No sector is going to make a substantial investment under these conditions. If they don't see the government on board with it, they're not in a position to do anything."
There are also legal liability reasons businesses may hold back. How much security is enough to avoid a jury verdict after an attack? It's hard to know without a standard.
"The government needs to be able to say 'This is what is required – A,B,C, but not D – and if you fail to do D, we recognize your good faith effort,' " Flynn says.
One industry that has broadly taken the initiative is railroads. Companies have drawn up their own emergency response plans and have even conducted war games using their own prioritized list of crucial infrastructure. Yet, without federal leadership, states have been reluctant to supply national guard troops for practice sessions and some key infrastructure goes lightly guarded, crimping preparedness, a senior railroad official says.
Those shortfalls and others were again hammered home in a major review of national preparedness unveiled Friday. Conducted in 56 states and territories and 75 urban areas over the past six months, that review envisioned hurricane, influenza, and terror attack scenarios and analyzed some 2,800 emergency operations plans along with interviews with first responders.
While the US is generally prepared for tornadoes and other localized, and even statewide emergencies, the nation is not prepared for catastrophes that strike multiple states at once. Just 13 percent of states and 7 percent of urban areas had plans for mass evacuations rated as "sufficient." Among state plans in the hurricane belt, less than 65 percent were rated sufficient.