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U.S. must bolster its homeland defenses, lawmaker says

The United States is not doing enough to confront potentially devastating threats, including attacks with weapons of mass destruction, to secure the homeland and protect the continuity of civilian-government operations, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Friday.

As a member of the Hart-Rudman Commission--also known as the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century--that identified serious threats facing the country, Gingrich said that United States, even after post-Sept. 11 procedures were implemented, should take stronger actions to address scenarios worse than airplanes crashing into buildings.

Citing the Hart-Rudman report, which said that the United States likely will be the target of a weapon of mass destruction such as nuclear or biological attack, Gingrich told attendees of a one-day conference on disaster recovery that the nation needs to be focused on the "real threats" it faces and "think through what needs to be done."

"The more connected we become, ... the more vulnerable we become," said Gingrich. "The more people with computers, the more hackers there will be," he told attendees of a conference hosted by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Those threats are going to require "building systems and security which are an embedded in the way we behave and not add-ons," he said. "You want to make sure that security is the natural part of the modern world."

Increasingly, opponents are becoming irrational, and their actions will threaten the nation in ways unimaginable, he said. These rogue opponents may not actually kill people, but could easily attack civilian infrastructure, critical to survival, such as water pipelines and financial-data systems. For example, Gingrich said that the nation could be the target of an overwhelming electromagnetic pulse, which would not likely kill people, but would wipe out all electronic devices within a given area.

Therefore, companies and government agencies at all levels need to begin contemplating security implications from a number of worst-case scenarios and build security or contingency plans into strategic planning. Gingrich urged the development of teams that would be employed solely to test the security of America's systems, including its information-technology security and critical infrastructures. "It would force us to a much higher level of self-awareness," he said.

Additionally, the homeland security director, which the Hart-Rudman Commission recommended elevating to a cabinet position, should conduct annual reviews to assess the status of government security and continuity planning in the face of a crisis.

But such plans often require additional funding to build redundant communications capabilities and hire necessary personnel to implement the strategies, he noted. Gingrich stressed that the costs of protection have to be weighed next to the level of risk. "You have to be ready to state in a stark manner the costs of not [creating security measures]," he said.

Businesses and government officials need to seize the "afterglow" of Sept. 11 to keep the minds of private- and public-sector leaders focused on the importance of maintaining security and homeland defense. This includes areas like boosting performance in math and science education, Gingrich said, to ensure that the nation is ahead of its opponents.