National Security Watch: Chertoff off the track
Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff infuriated some Democrats and security watchdogs this week with comments he made in an Associated Press article that suggested the federal government should not fund most rail security.
"The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people," Chertoff told a gathering of writers and editors from the newswire. "A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you're going to think about not having a catastrophic event first."
Asked if local and state officials should bear the lion's share of the responsibility for securing their trains, buses, and subways, Chertoff simply replied, "Yep."
Appearing before a Senate committee on Thursday afternoon, the tough former prosecutor turned DHS secretary offered few apologies for his remarks.
"We have an equal responsibility to protect Americans across the board in every respect," he acknowledged, adding, "The way we do it depends on the type of system we're talking about." Chertoff said that while local police and transit authorities often stand guard at local stations, it's a different world in airports, where there is "almost no one else in a position to put the boots on the ground" besides the feds. He also questioned the ability of DHS to secure relatively open mass-transit systems that ferry 14 million Americans each day. "Aviation is essentially a closed system," Chertoff said, adding Americans could "put up with" security procedures that swallow up time and restrict access to certain areas.
His comments certainly provoked a firestorm. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said the secretary's comments "just make one's jaw drop." Schumer called publicly for Chertoff to apologize and suggested he consider resigning. Meanwhile, a new national poll showed that 57 percent of Americans thought an attack on U.S. mass-transit systems was inevitable; just more than a third thought such a strike could somehow be prevented.
The debate over DHS's responsibilities in mass transit is heated. In the wake of the attacks in London, Chertoff's department has notably not called for increased funding for mass-transit security, arguing instead that the general grant money state and local officials receive from DHSthey've netted $8.6 billion since September 11can be used for transit security if they so wish. Those funds, however, have been the subject of frequent attacks, with many officials pointing out that rural areas like Wyoming (not so much mass transit there) get significantly more per capita than New York or California. Watchdog groups like the American Public Transportation Association point out that while $18 billion has been spent on aviation security since 9/11, just $250 million has been handed out specifically for transit safety.
Chertoff sees a federal role, albeit limited. He says he wants to speed up the deployment of technologieslike the "sniffers" in the New York, Boston, and Washington subway systemsthat can help local officials immediately detect biological, chemical, or nuclear materials unleashed on the tracks. A synchronized system of cameras, like the handy extra sets of eyes that helped London officials so quickly identify the subway bombers, have also caught the security boss's eye.
And many senators showed this week they supported himat least in some respect. In debates over their massive funding bill for DHS, senators voted three times on Thursday to reject proposals to increase the funding for mass-transit security. The amendments they considered would have upped the dough by amounts ranging from $100 million to $1.4 billion. Without the amendments, senators will cut mass-transit funding for fiscal 2006: They allocated $150 million specifically for the effort in fiscal 2005, while $100 million is in the current bill. The House, which passed a funding bill before the London attacks, held the figure at $150 million.