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How should US protect privately owned facilities?

The disruption of an alleged plot at JFK airport reveals a broader and complex homeland-security challenge.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2007

New york

The disruption of an alleged plot to blow up a fuel pipeline and tanks at John F. Kennedy International Airport is an intelligence success, but it also reveals one of the most complex homeland-security challenges: How should the federal government go about protecting privately owned facilities?

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The nation's electric grid, oil pipelines, storage tanks, ports, computer nerve centers, and many other facilities are all vital to the daily functioning of the economy. Known as critical infrastructure, 85 percent is privately owned. And as the alleged plot at JFK shows, those facilities also have the potential to become prime terrorist targets.

The 9/11 attacks necessitated a new way of thinking about the security of such facilities, experts say: Intelligence can catch some threats, but not all. That puts the private sector into an unprecedented national-security role and requires a shift away from complete reliance on the intelligence sector for security.

"The only way to be secure is to assess the vulnerabilities of our country and plug those vulnerabilities," said John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, at a recent conference at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "That's the mind-set we have to have, and I think it's beginning to take hold."

Prior to 9/11, the government regulated the security of only the most dangerous facilities, such as nuclear plants. The Environmental Protection Agency was charged with ensuring that facilities like chemical plants didn't pollute the land, water, or air, or cause undue harm to people living nearby.

But after 9/11, the private sector had to think like security experts. And the federal government had to figure out ways to encourage this – through regulation, tax incentives, and, in cases like the chemical industry that fought regulation for years, suggested requirements.

In essence, it's had to create an entirely new kind of public-private partnership. It's a process that's still very much in the making.

"So far we're doing critical infrastructure protection sector by sector," said Daniel Pietro, senior fellow and director of the Homeland Security Center at the Reform Institute in Alexandria, Va. That makes it difficult to harmonize the implementation, he added, speaking at the same Johns Hopkins conference.

Soon after 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security and radically ramped up aviation security, federalizing all preflight security screening and mandating that private airlines do things such as strengthen the cockpit doors.

During the next three years, Congress and DHS began developing various plans and regulations to protect everything from water supplies to the electric grid. For instance, Congress mandated that lists of all cargo coming into the nation's ports be screened. It required ID cards of port workers and the installation of radiation detectors at major ports.

DHS also developed various plans for voluntary cooperation on security, in particular for chemical plants and petrochemical plants. Late last year, Congress mandated that chemical plants must produce security risk assessments.