Agencies implement more stringent security measures

Federal agencies stepped up security across the country Tuesday as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge outlined a national plan to protect the United States from terrorist attacks during a war with Iraq.

Known as Operation Liberty Shield, the plan enlists a range of federal agencies-including at least six agencies outside the Homeland Security Department-and calls on states to mobilize National Guard units to help protect railroads, bridges and chemical plants deemed sensitive to attack. The plan took effect Monday when the government raised the terrorist threat level to orange on the color-coded terrorism alert system, meaning the country faces a "high risk" of terrorist attacks.

Ridge said the plan was a response to intelligence and comments by Osama bin Laden that suggested a U.S. military campaign in Iraq could prompt retributive acts of terrorism. Ridge, at a Tuesday press conference, said "bin Laden himself has said in recent weeks that military action in Iraq would be a rallying cry, a potential call to others, not just to al Qaeda but to others." The plan follows the administration's national strategy for homeland security, he added.

Much of the work of tightening security at seaports and along the U.S. border falls to two Homeland Security agencies, the Coast Guard and the new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. The Coast Guard will step up escorts of ferries and cruise vessels and will put sea marshals on all vessels deemed to be of "high interest," according to Ridge. The service will also increase patrols near chemical plants, he said.

At the borders, Ridge said that some Border Patrol agents would be moved to the U.S.-Canada border, but ruled out deploying National Guard personnel along the border. He said the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection would not put any new personnel on the U.S. border.

"Right now, it would be a repositioning of the assets and the people that we have," he said. The agency plans to hire 570 new Border Patrol agents with funds provided in the fiscal 2003 budget.

Ridge acknowledged the effort would create considerable new costs for state and local governments, and said the administration may seek relief for the states in a supplemental budget request due later this year.

The plan enlists several agencies outside the Homeland Security Department that assumed homeland security missions after Sept. 11. The Agriculture Department is taking steps to secure the food supply, including an increase in security at laboratories.

"Our experts have provided security guidelines for producers, processors and food providers in order to strengthen systems at the local level," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. The agency has also advised its employees to wear their identification badges at all times, escort all visitors to and from meetings at agency facilities and inspect all vehicles parking at Agriculture buildings.

The Transportation Department is encouraging shippers of hazardous materials to tighten security. Transportation's modal administrations have long shared rail and land security chores with the Transportation Security Administration, which is now a Homeland Security agency. For example, the Federal Transit Administration has funded vulnerability assessments of 37 major transit systems across the country.

"In some ways the fact that we aren't a regulatory agency has allowed us to go in more easily," said FTA Administrator Jennifer Dorn in a recent interview with Government Executive.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the lead agency for securing chemical plants. By law, nuclear plants and water facilities must complete vulnerability assessments, but no law requires similar reviews of security at the country's 15,000 chemical facilities. On Tuesday, the General Accounting Office released a report (GAO-03-439) urging Congress to pass legislation to shore up plant security. EPA and Homeland Security officials agreed with this recommendation.

The military's Northern Command is not part of Operation Liberty Shield, but the military will provide assistance if needed, said Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a spokesman for the Northern Command.

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