Senators blast TSA over rail security efforts

Agency has no clear priorities for protecting rails and has not completed a risk assessment, senators and a GAO representative say at Commerce Committee hearing.

U.S. senators Thursday laid into the head of the Transportation Security Administration over what the lawmakers and government auditors say have been inadequate efforts to protect freight and passenger rail systems against a terrorist attack.

The security agency has no clear priorities for protecting the rails and has not completed a risk assessment that would guide spending decisions, senators and a Government Accountability Office representative said at a Commerce Committee hearing. Pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to lay out TSA rail security priorities in terms of geography and infrastructure, agency Director Edmund Hawley instead cited general elements of a preparedness program.

Priorities include "information, communications, training, drilling, preparedness," Hawley told McCain. "It's the flexible resources to be able to--" he said before the furious McCain at last cut him off, saying, "I'm very disappointed that you're not being more forthcoming."

Without clearer priorities, McCain said, Congress cannot effectively oversee federal budgets and appropriations for rail security.

"If we're just going to give you a whole bunch of money and say, 'Spend it however you want,' then it doesn't matter," McCain said, "but I don't think we're going to do that."

Fiscal 2006 Homeland Security Department appropriations include about $150 million for rail security programs. Given an overall TSA budget of nearly $4 billion, "That certainly raises questions about whether that's an appropriate amount," GAO Homeland Security and Justice Director Cathleen Berrick said in response to a question from McCain.

To know for sure how much is needed, though, the security agency would have to complete its ongoing risk assessment for U.S. rails, Berrick said. "The first step is the risk assessment to determine how much we need and where do we actually spend the money," she said.

The auditing office released a report last month calling for more federal leadership on rail security.

The large extent to which responsibility for rail security is left to the industry raises concerns on whether the government has enough information and authority to ensure that trains are protected against terrorism, senators said.

Hawley said his agency constantly monitors the companies' security programs and that placing much of the responsibility with the companies is efficient because the firms are "highly motivated" by the probable financial consequences of a major security incident.

Citing the possibility that mass casualties and death could quickly result from a terrorist attack on a rail tanker carrying chlorine or another toxic cargo, local officials have been seeking to restrict shipments of such materials through cities such as Baltimore and Washington.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said an accident that left nine people dead in January in Graniteville, S.C., shows the deadly potential of chlorine, an early chemical weapon.

"What we saw in Graniteville, S.C. - HAZMAT release - now, that has the same effect as a weapon of mass destruction," Lautenberg said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., added that intelligence indicates rail protection should be a higher priority.

"We know," Boxer said, "because we've had evidence that's shown that the trains are definitely on the al-Qaeda list."