Lawmakers want full assessment of terrorism risks

Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee are most concerned that the Homeland Security Department has yet to create a full risk assessment of potential terrorism, complaining that the government cannot properly target its resources if no one knows what is at greatest risk.

At a hearing Thursday, Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said a complete risk assessment is needed to establish "more concrete goals to make the country safer" and to "deter irresponsible binge spending."

Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., agreed, complaining that she has been waiting for more than a year for the department to complete such an assessment. She demanded a timeline for completion, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he expects an assessment to be completed in the next 60 to 90 days.

But Christopher Shays, R-Conn., noted that it is not always easy to make the proper determinations about risk when the federal government relies on information from the states and states often "are just giving you a wish list" that is not based on need.

"We need to pare the wish lists down to needs," Ridge agreed, adding that perhaps a more rigorous set of criteria needs to be established for states to conduct the assessments.

Sanchez also voiced concern that "first responders" to emergencies are not getting the money promised by the states, and Jane Harman, D-Calif., complained that the Bush administration has recommended cutting all fiscal 2005 funding that would go toward making the technology systems of first responders able to communicate with each other. "I find this disturbing given the importance" of emergency personnel, Harman said.

Ridge said the federal government is "ready to cut the checks" to states, but the problem is that there are too many differing ways to distribute the money. Funding has been delayed as officials try to determine how to disburse the federal aid, he said.

At a recent conference, a Homeland Security official said last week that billions of federal dollars for "first responders" to emergencies in the states should be available by March 1. "We're moving very quickly," said Mark Dozier, a branch chief in Homeland Security's office for domestic preparedness. States "should see the money by March 1." Some $2.2 billion will be distributed among 56 states and territories, and he said there is sufficient money available to address the objectives that states are trying to accomplish.

Ridge also stressed that there is a role for the private sector to invest in security. He urged policymakers to explore whether the private sector should pay to use ports, airports and other sensitive areas that are expensive to protect.

Upon questioning from Curt Weldon, R-Pa., Ridge said he supports efforts to make the temporary House committee permanent and to consolidate congressional oversight of his department. He noted that department officials testified before Congress 120 times last year, that the agency has 420 General Accounting Office requests and that a "couple thousand" letters from Congress to answer.