Senate committee plans more homeland security oversight

A hearing is already scheduled on implementing unfulfilled Sept. 11 commission recommendations.

Newly minted Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is off to an active start in his new role.

He already has held a hearing to examine how best to implement unfulfilled recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and plans to pass a bill to address those issues out of his committee by the end of the month.

"We're definitely better protected than we were before 9/11, but we are not as well protected as we want and need to be," he said during the Jan. 9 hearing.

Lieberman, who was re-elected in November as an independent but caucuses with the Democrats, also reorganized his panel on Wednesday by creating two subcommittees to focus exclusively on security oversight. A subcommittee on disaster recovery will examine how the government helps communities recover from disasters in general and Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in particular.

Mary Landrieu, D-La., was picked to chair the latter subcommittee, while Ted Stevens of Alaska is expected to be named the ranking Republican.

A second subcommittee on state, local and private-sector preparedness and integration will be chaired by Mark Pryor, D-Ark., while John Sununu of New Hampshire is the top Republican.

That subcommittee was created to oversee Homeland Security Department efforts relating to state and local fusion centers, law enforcement grants, and how the private sector can prepare for and respond to emergencies, according to Lieberman's office.

As part of his oversight agenda, Lieberman plans to examine how the government is sharing counter-terrorism information. He might seek new rules to help guide the use of technology for the information-sharing environment, a Democratic aide said. A 2004 intelligence reform bill mandated creation of the so-called ISE to coordinate government intelligence resources.

Lieberman also may push to require the Bush administration "to report on the feasibility of using encrypted data to ease information sharing while protecting security, privacy and civil liberties interests," the aide added.

And Lieberman's Democratic majority also plans to watch how the Homeland Security and State departments implement the Western Hemisphere travel initiative, which requires travelers to have passports or a new PASS card to enter the United States. The PASS cards are credit-card-sized and can be used only for travel via land or sea between the United States and Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico.

The aide added that the committee might investigate Homeland Security's capabilities to detect radiological and nuclear materials inside the United States.

A priority for the committee's top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, is ensuring that state and local governments have communications that work across jurisdictions, one of her aides said.

The aide added that "we plan to continue to look at how technology can support stronger information sharing, what technologies might help agencies move financial management and other business practices, and what protections are needed to ensure privacy of personal data." Collins also was an original co-sponsor of the "Google for government" law, which utilizes technology to track government spending, and she will monitor its implementation.

New members to watch on the committee include Landrieu, Sununu and Barack Obama, D-Ill.

At the Jan. 9 hearing, Sununu said he is worried about the federal government mandating that state and local governments adopt certain technology solutions, such as when it comes to the use of radio frequencies. "I have had a general concern about the federal government mandating ... specific technology that has to be used to solve a problem because that tends to stifle innovation and stifle competition," he said.

Landrieu has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated her hometown of New Orleans. She admonished Bush on Tuesday for failing to mention ongoing recovery operations and needs in his State of the Union speech.

"With nearly 6,000 words about the nation's priorities, not one single word was devoted to the rebuilding and protection of affected areas of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast that were hit by the two most brutal hurricanes in American history," she said. "It was a glaring omission."

And Obama has said Congress should establish stronger laws to regulate security at chemical facilities. He said new legislation should require the facilities to use safer technologies and processes, and should make clear that states can pass stronger laws than federal standards.