DHS Secretary Tom Ridge assesses department on its first anniversary
On the first anniversary of the creation of the nation's 15th cabinet-level department, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge touted first-year accomplishments and sketched second-year goals in a speech at Washington, D.C.'s George Washington University. House Democrats, however, pointed to continued deficiencies--including holes in chemical plant security.
In addition to measures to strengthen aviation security, Ridge cited his department's container security initiative, which has placed inspectors at 17 key foreign ports this year. He has promised additional inspectors at 14 other ports this year. He also noted an improved system that cleared nearly 300,000 and barred only 200 foreign students from studying at U.S. institutions of higher learning.
Continuing on the learning theme, Ridge pointed out that his department set up its first class of 100 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Scholars and Fellows and established its first Center of Excellence at the University of Southern California. These measures, he said, will "foster new thinking, new capabilities, and new career paths."
Ridge spotlighted the allocation of what he called "a record $8 billion to states, regions, and cities to help train and equip" first responders. States and localities particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks have complained of not receiving enough money for their emergency preparedness efforts. Ridge acknowledged their concerns by announcing a new allocation approach that he said would consider "population density, nearby critical infrastructure, and a more focused assessment of threat."
During DHS's second year, Ridge said, he plans to work in "tandem with the private sector to ... significantly increase permanent protections around our nation's most vital assets." He expects the private sector "to take the initiative ... to strengthen the security of your facilities with your dollars."
Ridge pledged that his department and the private sector would create a unified, national critical infrastructure database by December. Such a database would identify vulnerabilities, note existing levels of security, and reveal where additional protective measures are needed. Part of this effort would entail the development of standards to measure vulnerabilities and identify steps to correct them.
To note the first anniversary of the department, Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security released their own 135-page oversight report. It allows that the U.S. is safer than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, but cites what it calls lingering "significant security gaps."
One such gap that ranking committee member Jim Turner (D-Texas) cites is the vulnerability of chemical plants. A year after the creation of DHS, Turner says, "there is still no comprehensive national plan in place to determine chemical plant vulnerabilities, let alone to develop safety measures."
The report "America at Risk: Closing the Security Gap" agrees that amassing the database is a good "first step toward the development of a genuine infrastructure risk assessment." But rather than December, the Democrats urge that the database be compiled "no later than Oct. 1."
They also press the Bush Administration to require all chemical facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop security plans by Oct. 1 to address those vulnerabilities. The Democrats note that 123 facilities pose a risk to more than 1 million people if terrorists massively breach their containment.
In his speech, Ridge spotlighted the critical role played by science and technology in combating terrorism. And he committed DHS to the development of new capabilities for detecting nuclear materials in shipping containers and vehicles and the "next generation of biological and chemical detectors."