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America finds gaps in security hard to close

Federal, state, and local governments lag in emergency preparedness, a report finds.

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A key problem, experts say, is that government and first responders at all levels need to practice their complex response plans. But less than one-fifth of the $18 billion spent just on disaster preparedness has gone toward training, the bulk going toward communication and detection equipment, said George Foresman, DHS undersecretary for preparedness, at a press conference Friday.

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That lack of practice has led to foul-ups. During hurricane Katrina, for instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency "had an empty passenger train parked at Baton Rouge for three to four days after it hit," says the railroad official, who asked not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press. "It was used maybe once to evacuate people, but could have been used a lot more if there was more decisiveness. The role of the government, as we see it, is to set priorities. That's what we need."

Federal failure to prioritize critical infrastructure has also contributed to some key assets remaining unguarded, the railroad official says.

"There is infrastructure we've pinpointed that, if it were destroyed, would be a major problem for the country," the official says. "These assets aren't as well protected as they should be."

Bird flu preparedness

Preparedness is also lagging in certain other key areas. A flu pandemic could knock out a third of the nation's rail capacity. Yet without priorities set by government for what must be carried on remaining rail capacity, the results could be a mess.

"Do we need more Nintendos hauled to stores – or more coal and grain?" the railroad official asks. "We can't make that decision. Someone in government has to make those decisions as to what's a priority."

Slowly, that is happening. A just completed federal plan for dealing with a bird-flu pandemic includes a range of tools for setting such priorities, points out Mr. Foresman in a phone interview last week. Authority of governors and the president to mandate essential services ensures coal will travel ahead of Nintendos, he notes. Foresman favors risk-based, minimum performance standards rather than spelling out to industry specific technologies that must be adopted.

Prioritizing the nation's critical infrastructure remains a challenge. The list of crucial sites ballooned from 143 shortly after 9/11 to more than 270,000 today.

"Do we have a fully prioritized list yet? No. But we have a robust list," Foresman says. "We are getting better."

Standards alone are no panacea. Security gaps remain even in areas where government has imposed them. For example: the US still doesn't screen all airline passengers against a comprehensive terrorism "watch list," says Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of DHS and author of "Open Target," a book strongly critical of the nation's preparedness.

Nearly two years after 9/11, soon after he started at DHS, Ervin sent undercover teams to airports to try to sneak weapons aboard aircraft – knives, mock explosives, and real guns. Despite billions of dollars spent over the past three years on various initiatives including luggage-scanning systems, airport screeners at many airports were no better at detecting weapons in 2003 or again in 2004 than they were in 2001, Mr. Ervin says. Even now, not all cargo luggage is scanned for explosives, he adds.

The GAO report in April echoed the sentiment. Despite progress measuring the effectiveness of its screening systems, covert testing shows, it found that "weaknesses and vulnerabilities continue to exist" in airline passenger weapons screening.

Overall, "we're much more secure than we used to be," says Foresman, citing hardened cockpit doors, air marshalls and federalized passenger screening. "For every one [weapon] that does get through, hundreds or thousands don't."

Critics disagree. "Unless the federal government is willing to take responsibility as well as accountability for setting minimum security requirements within these [port, rail, hazardous material trucking and chemical] sectors, we're not going to see much progress," says Flynn.

Even among those willing to grant the administration points for progress, there is a sense the job is only a bit better than halfway done.

"It took the US a decade to get things in place to fight the cold war," says James Carafano, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "We have a layered, risk-based approach to security this time, and it will take time to implement. It's a good approach. I would argue it is kind of working."