A reality check for Homeland Security

John Kerry says the London attacks underscore the need to complete "unfinished work" back home. Recent reports suggest that he's right.

Published July 7, 2005 4:42PM (EDT)

John Kerry just issued a statement about the attacks in London, and it's full of all the things that you'd expect any politician to say: There are "thoughts and prayers" for the people of London, expressions of solidarity with Tony Blair, and the obligatory alliteration about how the future belongs "not to fear, but to freedom." But there is also this: Criticism, at least implicit, of George W. Bush for falling down on the job of keeping Americans safe. Kerry says that the London attacks "remind us that the fight is far from over" and underscore the need to complete "the unfinished work of homeland security, strengthening our port security, rail security, protecting chemical plants, and securing loose nuclear materials abroad."

What's the state of that work? A spate of recent reports suggests that Kerry has it about right -- "unfinished."

Port security: Congress was informed last month that a system designed to keep nuclear materials out of U.S. ports is full of holes and plagued by false alarms. In New Jersey and New York alone, the system triggers "about 150 false alarms a day," a Port Authority official told a House Homeland Security subcommittee. An official from the Government Accounting Office said other ports are experiencing similar problems with false alarms --- and that agents at some ports are so poorly trained that they have been seen trying to use handheld radiation detectors to sweep entire cargo containers.

Rail security: As the New York Times put it in an editorial earlier this week, the "weakest point" in the country's defense against terrorism may be a small railroad bridge in Washington. "Rail tanker cars filled with deadly chemicals pass over the bridge, at Second Street and E Street SW, on their journeys up and down the East Coast. The bridge is highly vulnerable to an explosion from below, and if deadly chemicals were released on it, they would endanger every member of Congress and as many as 250,000 other federal employees." If errant airplanes cause the evacuation of the U.S. Captiol, how is it that deadly chemicals are allowed to pass close by every day of the week? The rail industry says prohibiting the transportation of deadly chemicals through major metropolitan areas would hurt their bottom line. When Washington's City Council passed a law prohibiting the transportation of the most dangerous chemicals within 2.2 miles of the Capitol, a railroad company sued -- and the Bush administration took the railroad's side in the case.

Securing chemical plants: A report issued this week by the Congressional Research Service revealed that there are more than 100 facilities nationwide that store large quantities of deadly chemicals near communities of at least 1 million people. So far, the security measures for such facilities have been largely voluntary -- and Homeland Security officials say that's not good enough. Robert Stephan, acting undersecretary for Homeland Security, told Congress last month that it must "develop enforceable performance standards" for chemical plants. "We believe that about 20 percent [of the chemical plants thought to pose the greatest risk] arent governed by any kind of voluntary security code," Stephan told the Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee. "I cannot come to the president or report to you, with a straight face, and say I absolutely know whats going on there."

Securing nuclear materials: Former Sen. Sam Nunn told a forum revisiting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission last week that the U.S. is losing the fight to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. "We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response," said Nunn, who now heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative. " Nunn said the United States and Russia share responsibility for safeguarding nuclear materials. How are they doing? On a scale of one to ten, he gives them a three. Nunn said the Bush administration has largely ignored the 9/11 Commisson's recommendations regarding the need to find and destroy plutonium and uranium supplies -- a job he calls perhaps the most critical in the war on terror.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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