Dems Scorch Bush Security Plans

Homeland security congress capitol
Despite creating a Homeland Security Department and spending $10 billion to screen airline passengers and secure the nation's airports, the Bush administration has failed to adequately protect the nation against another terrorist attack, congressional Democrats contend.

Minority Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee make the allegations in a scathing report to be released Friday.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press, lists a dozen areas where Democrats say the Bush administration has failed to adequately address weaknesses that terrorists could exploit more than two years after the suicide hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Homeland Security Department said the report "woefully ignores" what has been accomplished thus far.

"It is unfortunate that there are those in Congress who merely point out criticism, rather than propose concrete solutions on how they can work with the administration to make America safer," department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

The 16-page document — "America at Risk: The State of Homeland Security" — culls information from the Pentagon, congressional investigators and other sources summarizing dangers to U.S. cities, borders, ports and airways.

Taken together, the information shows the Bush administration hasn't provided the leadership necessary to handle the country's domestic security needs, Democrats say.

"In conducting oversight for almost a year now, our committee members are deeply concerned that our government is not taking strong and swift enough action to protect the homeland," Texas Rep. Jim Turner, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee said in a statement.

According to the report:

  • The Transportation Security Administration has spent more than $10 billion to screen baggage and passengers since November 2001, yet there are numerous reports of dangerous items clearing security. Roehrkasse said that figure includes a host of expenses, including hiring and training a federal screening work force, purchasing explosive detection technology and deploying air marshals.
  • Al Qaeda and other groups are believed to possess thousands of shoulder-fired missiles, but U.S. commercial airplanes have no defense against the weapons. Roehrkasse says the administration is working on ways to counter missile threats.
  • The Pentagon's Defense Science Board says that at least 56 new countermeasures are needed to protect against the 19 bioterrorism agents. Democrats say little progress has been made and the government is failing to sufficiently address the threat.

    The report raises the prospect that Democrats will attempt to challenge President Bush on national security issues, an area where — during war time — a sitting president normally has an edge, but also an issue that may be key to winning voters in the fall.

    The Bush administration can point to a host of steps it has taken recently.

    This month, the U.S. inaugurated a system called US-VISIT, under which foreigners entering U.S. airports and seaports from all but 27 nations will have their fingerprints scanned and their photographs taken. The program will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

    The Bush administration also announced early this month that it has chosen three companies to develop plans for anti-missile systems to defend commercial planes against shoulder-fired rockets. During a high terror alert over the holidays, the U.S. issued rules requiring that foreign airlines place armed marshals aboard selected flights.

    And the Washington Post reports the Bush administration is expected to order as soon as next month the first step in setting up databases on all air passengers, to be used to color-code each air traveler according to his or her potential threat level.

    But reports indicate that gaps remain.

    Almost 5,000 ships and about four out of every five of the nation's ports, ferry terminals and fuel-chemical tank farms failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for submitting security plans showing how they will deal with potential terrorist threats.

    And while U.S. and Canadian military aircraft have scrambled nearly 1,700 times to intercept or divert suspicious aircraft since Sept. 11, routine drills illustrate how terrorists could penetrate the airspace around the nation's capital.

    Officials who talked to The Associated Press about the classified results of the drills only on condition of anonymity said U.S. military officials have concluded it would be very difficult to intercept a hijacked plane within a certain radius of major cities like Washington unless fighter jets were already airborne.