Homeland Security, Democrats spar over protection efforts

The Homeland Security Department on Friday disputed a report issued by House Democrats that included sweeping criticisms of efforts to protect the country.

Democratic members of the House Homeland Security Committee released initial findings of an upcoming report alleging gaps in the areas of intelligence, nuclear material stockpiles, aviation security, border security, port security, critical infrastructure protection, chemical plant security, cybersecurity, bioterrorism, first responder preparedness, civil rights protection and information technology.

"The reality is that anybody who looks at homeland security today in an objective way will acknowledge that we have serious security gaps that remain, and the task is to close those gaps in the shortest amount of time possible," committee ranking member Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, said Friday.

But DHS spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the report "completely fails to recognize the significant accomplishments" the department has made in protecting the country. Roehrkasse said some of the conclusions in the report are inaccurate, while others contradict priorities set by Congress through legislation.

For example, the report states that DHS has not yet implemented a new immigration tracking system at U.S. land ports, where 80 percent of all inspections take place. But Roehrkasse noted that Congress does not require that capability until the end of 2005.

The report puts DHS officials at odds with committee Democrats less than one week before Congress reconvenes and the committee tackles the daunting tasks of passing homeland security legislation and drafting the first DHS authorization bill.

Turner said one of the biggest problems for homeland security efforts is the lack of a comprehensive terrorist threat and vulnerability assessment of the nation's critical infrastructure. The DHS Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate is responsible for completing the assessment.

According to the report, the directorate has hired only 36 percent of authorized employees, adding that the directorate's assistant secretary, Robert Liscouski, said a comprehensive assessment is unlikely to be completed within the next five years.

Roehrkasse refuted those claims, saying the directorate has hired up to 50 percent of authorized employees. He said the department has developed an action plan to conduct vulnerability assessments, and is currently assessing chemical facilities and issuing recommendations that, in some cases, go beyond what is required in legislation. Roehrkasse added that the nation has hundreds of thousands of pieces of critical infrastructure, most of which are owned and operated by the private sector.

"This seems to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations for a department that is less than a year old," Roehrkasse said.

According to Turner, a comprehensive vulnerability assessment is needed to determine homeland security priorities, including how much funding is required, where investments are best suited and whether the government should offer industry incentives to better protect infrastructure. He said the committee might consider incentives for the private sector that include tax deductions, tax credits and shortened capital depreciation times.

"There is always a struggle between how much regulation the government should place on the private sector," he said.

Turner said the final report would be issued before DHS celebrates its one-year anniversary in March. He added that committee Democrats plan to use the findings in the report as a guide to crafting the DHS authorization bill.

Homeland Security Committee Republicans also took issue with the findings Friday. Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., criticized the report, saying minority members are "substituting rhetoric for responsible oversight."

"The committee majority will work closely with the minority and with the Department of Homeland Security on constructive solutions to the many challenges that remain," Cox said. "But backsliding from responsible oversight into one-page summaries of major initiatives and a laundry list of homeland security gaps is unacceptable amateurism."

Turner said he hopes DHS will view the report as "a legitimate exercise of congressional oversight."

"I think the task here is to maintain a sense of urgency and strength of leadership that's necessary to unite the American people behind the task of securing the homeland," he said. "What we see from our vantage point on the committee are significant security gaps that still represent a threat to the American people."

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