Monday, September 27, 2004

Department of Homeland Security: Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?

A Washington Post poll issued today shows that 59% of registered voters approve of the way George W. Bush is fighting the war on terror and an equal number believe that the country today is safer from terrorism than it was on September 11, 2001.

It they read this article by Matthew Brzezinski in the current issue of Mother Jones (excerpt here, you need a subscription to read the entire article), their faith in the Bush administration may waver. Brzezinski reminds us that Bush was originally opposed to a Department of Homeland Security, and has basically ignored it since it was created, starving it for funds and attention in favor of his disasterous $150 billion boondoggle in Iraq.

You should read the entire article, but for our purposes, I'll highlight two examples: first, because of the money being poured down the drain in Iraq, firefighters and other first responders across the country still don't have radios that work on the same frequencies:
The financial crunch is most keenly felt by the people on the front lines-at ports and borders, among firefighters and hospitals, transit authorities, biohazard labs, and rail hubs-who are invariably understaffed, underfunded, and ill-equipped. Just to properly outfit emergency personnel with radios that work on the same frequency, and prevent the tragedy that occurred when firefighters and police at the World Trade Center could not warn one another of the buildings' impending collapse, $6.8 billion is needed, according to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations. But not only are first-responder programs slated for large budget cuts in 2005, the Bush administration and the FCC are considering giving the radio frequencies earmarked for the public safety communication spectrum to private telecommunication companies, a $5 billion gift.
More troubling is the story, familiar to Confined Space readers, of the Bush administration's failure to take basic measures to protect the citizens of this country from attacks on chemical plants. This is a long excerpt, but it's worth it. Brzezinski interviewed Bob Liscouski, assistant secretary from the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, one of DHS's five main divisions. Liscouski explained that DHS doesn't actually do anything about homeland security, they just coordinate the efforts of the government and private sector:
"What about the chemical industry?" I inquired. Survey after survey has shown that the 15,000 chemical plants in the United States are probably the most vulnerable pieces of infrastructure in America. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 100 of these plants could each endanger up to a million lives with poisonous clouds of ammonia, chlorine, or carbon disulfide that could be released into the atmosphere over densely populated areas by a terror attack. The military ranks a strike against the chemical industry as second only to biological warfare (and ahead of nuclear devices) in the total number of mass casualties it would produce.

Following 9/11, there was an urgent push to curtail some of these risks. Democratic senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, whose state was home to 9 of the 111 most vulnerable factories in the country, introduced legislation to police chemical producers; the bill passed unanimously in Senate committees and quickly garnered White House support. Named the Chemical Security Act, it sought to codify parameters for site security, ensure the safer transport of toxic materials (a single railcar filled with 33,000 gallons of chlorine could kill up to 100,000 people), and establish a timetable to shift away from the use of the most noxious chemicals. Some major chemical users have already been doing that voluntarily. In Washington, for instance, the city water treatment plant switched in 2001 from chlorine to a slightly more expensive, but less dangerous, bacteria remover. The change cost the average D.C. water consumer 50 cents per year, but reduced the risk of terrorist hijackings by eliminating hundreds of chlorine tankers rumbling through the capital region.

The Chemical Security Act seemed set to sail through Congress. But as the memory of 9/11 grew dimmer, the petrochemical industry launched a well-coordinated and well- financed campaign to scuttle the bill. Led by the powerful American Petroleum Institute, lobby groups bombarded senators, members of Congress, and the White House with thousands of letters, position papers, and reports on the adverse economic impact of the Chemical Security Act. Chlorine and its derivatives went into products that accounted for 45 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, they argued. Without chlorine components, they lamented, even the backyard gas grill would disappear. The American pastoral would be forever changed.

The White House quickly cooled toward the idea of regulating chemical security. The seven Republican senators who had endorsed the bill in committee withdrew their support. And $5.7 million in petrochemical campaign contributions helped to ensure that Republicans took the Senate in the 2002 midterm elections and that the Chemical Security Act died without a vote. In its place, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) proposed that chemical factories be allowed to police themselves and that the government have no oversight or enforcement powers over safety rules.

As a result, three years after 9/11, virtually anyone can still gain entry into thousands of chemical sites across the country. I had witnessed this myself in places like Baltimore and Los Angeles, accompanying city officials eager to expose the lack of security measures. Liscouski, though, appeared unmoved. Was DHS working on any mandatory security codes for unprotected chemical plants? Fencing requirements, cameras, lights, guards? "Our job is not to regulate," he said. "By regulating, we could be missing out on important gaps. Not all chemical plants produce materials with the same levels of toxicity. Regulating is not our role," he repeated. Why not? I asked.

"We are not going to turn this country into a fortress," he snapped. "I have every confidence that the private sector will act responsibly, that they will do the right thing on their own." That was quite a leap of faith. Last year The Economist published a survey of 331 large corporations, finding that their security spending had risen by just 4 percent since 9/11, and that much of the increase was a result of higher insurance premiums. Only one in five of the companies said their spending would continue to increase. "Left to themselves," notes Stephen Flynn, a homeland security scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, "factory owners will do nothing. They have no incentive to. If factory A, say, spends a million dollars on security upgrades, its products can't compete with factory B down the street, which spent nothing. Only legislation can level the playing field."

Liscouski started to glance impatiently at his watch. I still had no clear idea of what his infrastructure protection division actually did, other than draw Venn diagrams. "We've sent people to two dozen chemical plants we've determined are the highest risk," he finally offered.

"To shore up security?" I asked.

"No," he said, getting up to leave. "To advise them on what their vulnerabilities are."
So, can John Kerry (with our help) get this message to the American people in the next five weeks?

Let's hope so. Our lives may depend on it.