TSA chief says aviation attacks still pose greatest risk

An attack on planes or using planes as weapons still presents the greatest risk, the chief of the Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday.

TSA Administrator David Stone told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that "threat streams" indicate that the greatest risk is still that a plane may be targeted for attack or used to carry out an attack. He noted that two planes crashed in Russia last August due to an apparent terrorist attack.

The 9/11 commission, however, which was charged with making recommendations to prevent terrorist attacks, concluded last July that the threat of a maritime or surface transportation attack is "as great or greater" than an attack on the aviation system.

"While commercial aviation remains a possible target, terrorists may turn their attention to other modes," the commission said. "Opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation."

A TSA official said after the hearing that more opportunities exist to carry out a maritime or surface transportation attack because they have so many more points of entry, but an attack on an airplane or using an airplane to attack a facility would have the most significant impact, particularly economically and psychologically.

"Aviation continues to be the first choice of terrorists," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The 9/11 panel's final report also said that more than 90 percent of the nation's annual investment in TSA is for aviation security, which goes "to fight the last war."

For fiscal 2006, TSA is requesting about $5 billion for aviation security. Comparatively, the agency has requested about $545 million for transportation security support, which is about $167 million less than Congress approved for 2005, and $32 million for surface transportation security, which is about $83 million less than was approved for 2005.

Stone said in written comments to the committee that the $32 million requested for surface transportation security will cover all of TSA's security operations in all non-aviation modes of transportation.

In the past, TSA has said that the Coast Guard is primarily responsible for maritime security, and the Homeland Security Department provides grants to states for port, rail and surface transportation security. The Federal Railroad Administration also helps fund rail security, and the operators of other modes of transportation, such as bus and rail, have invested their own funds into security improvements.

For fiscal 2006, DHS has proposed creating a $600 million grant fund through which states can compete for money to boost port, rail and transportation security.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, criticized the budget proposal during the hearing. "I am stunned that this purports to be a budget that takes care of homeland security," she said.

Stone said he believes the proposed funding levels are adequate based on risk assessments.

Cathleen Berrick, director of the Government Accountability Office's division of homeland security and justice, said, however, that TSA has not yet developed an adequate risk management approach. For example, she said the agency does not have a complete threat assessment for general aviation airports and only a limited vulnerability assessment for those airports.

Stone said TSA plans to issue sector-specific transportation security plans on April 1.

Lawmakers also criticized TSA's proposal to increase passenger fees, saying such a move would hurt people who fly from rural areas because they often have to take connecting flights.

TSA's 2006 budget would increase fees paid by airline passengers on a typical one-leg ticket from $2.50 to $5.50. For passengers traveling multiple legs on a one-way trip, the fee would increase from $5 to $8. TSA estimates the change would raise $1.5 billion for aviation security.

Stone said the fee increase would mean that airline passengers would pay more of the cost for aviation screening than the general taxpayer.

"Since it costs TSA significantly more to provide aviation security than the agency collects in fees, the proposed budget is designed to have the airline passenger, rather than the general taxpayer, cover more of TSA's aviation security costs in the interest of fairness and equity," Stone said in written comments to the committee.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the fee isn't fair to people from rural areas who cannot get nonstop flights to destination cities. He noted that these passengers do not have to be rescreened when transferring to another flight, but still pay the extra fee for the additional flight.

Stone acknowledged that Dorgan's description of the fee was correct.

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