- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

The Department of Homeland Security says a Democratic report exposing gaps in national security largely validates statements made last week by Secretary Tom Ridge.

“The report reaffirms many of the key priorities that were announced by the secretary [last] Monday,” said a Homeland Security spokesman, referring to a speech Mr. Ridge gave at George Washington University to kick off the department’s first anniversary celebration.

The department was established a year ago today as part of the Bush admininstration’s merger of about 180,000 federal employees in 22 agencies in response to the September 11 attacks.

The report, “America at Risk: Closing the Security Gap,” touted exclusively by Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, outlines problems in the homeland security effort.

Republicans have not responded openly to the Democrats’ report. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, was unavailable for comment.

However, as the committee’s Democrats, led by Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, were releasing their report at a news conference Wednesday, the committee’s Republicans held their own news conference to tout security advancements during the department’s first year.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Turner said there is not a partisan riff among committee members. He noted, however, that the Department of Homeland Security is a product of the largest reorganization of the federal government in the past 50 years, making close scrutiny necessary.

“I and my Democratic colleagues feel that we have a moral obligation, a constitutional obligation to be very vigorous in oversight of this new department,” he said.

The Democrats’ 135-page report makes a variety of observations and recommendations. One section says that truck cargo entering the United States should be screened comprehensively for weapons of mass destruction.

“In light of the significant threat that a nuclear or radiological weapon could be smuggled into the U.S. on a cargo truck, radiation portals have not been installed quickly enough at our land borders,” the report states.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, one of the agencies under the Homeland Security Department, has a plan to deploy such monitors at major border crossings, and has done so at 50 percent of the ports of entry along the northern border, the report said. But the 2005 budget request for further portal installations will complete installation at only about 38 percent of entry ports along the southern border.

“Thus,” the report claims, “by the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the southern border still will not have a comprehensive detection system installed to screen cargo for weapons of mass destruction.”

Homeland Security press secretary Brian Roehrkasse stressed Mr. Ridge’s priority of continuing to develop and implement next-generation technology.

“We have rapidly deployed these radiation detectors since September 11 and we continue to do so while continuing to pursue next-generation technology,” he said, noting that such technology “will result in less false positives and have the ability to seek out materials that are in lead and covered containers.”

Added Robert M. Jacksta, executive director for border security and facilitation atCustoms and Border Protection: “I think we’ve made tremendous progress and that we’re moving forward on a lot of fronts.”

A story in Wednesday’s editions of The Times incorrectly reported the findings of the Democrats’ report regarding agents with the U.S. Border Patrol — another agency now under the Department of Homeland Security — working along the northern border with Canada.

The report says the Bush administration has met legal requirements set by the Enhanced Border Security Act of 2002 to triple the number of border patrol agents on the northern border. It stresses, however, that not enough has been done to address the specific threat exposed by the September 11 attacks.

“More than two years after the 9/11 attacks, the administration still has not proposed a comprehensive staffing strategy to secure our borders,” the report says.

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