- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2005

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s much-anticipated plan to revamp the massive agency drew criticism from key congressional panels yesterday for neglecting air passenger and mass transit safety.

“The London bombing last week, coupled with the Madrid bombing last year should be a wake-up call to us all that our trains and transit system are an attractive target for terrorists,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and House Homeland Security Committee ranking member.

Members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security asked Mr. Chertoff to explain his published comments that local communities will be responsible for protecting subways and bus systems.

“The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people,” Mr. Chertoff told the Associated Press. “A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”

Mr. Chertoff said the department’s new direction is to focus on likely targets of terrorists that could cause the most destruction, a mission goal praised by lawmakers in both chambers. However, senators disagreed that local communities should be financially responsible for protecting transit systems.

Mr. Chertoff agreed that local, state and federal officials “have an equal responsibility to protect Americans across the board,” but said he will not put federal police on local buses and subway systems.

“We have to be partners with everybody, but we have to recognize there are differences in the way we apply our partnership,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called on Mr. Chertoff to apologize for the remark. “To simply wash the federal government’s hands of responsibility at a time when this administration is cutting back on mass transit funding and localities have very little money is an appalling abrogation of responsibility,” he said.

Most panel members acknowledged Mr. Chertoff was handed a massive new agency rife with management problems.

Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and committee chairman, praised Mr. Chertoff’s plan because it “will help eliminate the bureaucratic stovepipes in the department and sharpen the department’s focus on its core counterterrorism mission.”

But other members of the House panel demanded to know why cargo shipped on passenger planes is rarely searched.

The only way to guarantee that cargo aboard does not present a threat is to prohibit all cargo which would “destroy our economy,” Mr. Chertoff said. “We have to be very careful when we talk about security measures not to burn the village down in order to save it.”

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, questioned the wisdom of checking all passenger baggage but not cargo.

“I think it’s really outrageous that we at least don’t warn passengers that the cargo on a passenger plane has not been checked,” he said. “… I think we endanger the general public by not checking the cargo in the belly of an aircraft.”

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