Homeland Security officials face monumental task

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   The nation has made strides to enhance homeland security since Sept. 11, including pumping billions of dollars into homeland defense, expanding the smallpox vaccine stockpile, enhancing aviation, seaport and border security. However, much work remains before July, when the Office of Homeland Security is supposed to issue its national strategy.
   Henry Hinton Jr., managing director of Defense Capabilities and Management, in testimony earlier this month before a subcommittee on national security, said trying to effectively involve all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, thousands of municipalities and countless private entities into a single, coordinated effort is a monumental task.
   Under Operation Noble Eagle, which concerns direct homeland defense, the Department of Defense has alerted for activation more than 97,000 reserve servicemembers and has called up more than 78,000 Reserve and National Guard troops.
   However, Col. John Mogan, assistant commissioner for Homeland Security in Tennessee, said, "Sometimes there are just no good answers. We're learning as we go. People can dream up all kinds of terrible scenarios and we could lie awake, wringing our hands at night. There are lots of places that are unprotected but, fortunately, there are more of us than there are of them."
   Mogan said Tennessee has one asset that many states don't: It recently was authorized to put together a 23-person support team manned by full-time Army, Air, and National Guard. The team is expected to be trained and "up to speed" by the end of the year.
   "They receive special training in the detection and decontamination of biological/radiological agents and they have a mobile laboratory that can respond to anywhere in the state on short notice."
   Col. Mogan said that though the state is making progress in homeland security, "you just don't do these things overnight. ... We threw some barricades up here and there, we've increased security around the Capitol while the General Assembly is in session, but there's just not enough Guardsmen in the world or enough resources in the world to make sure that everything is protected appropriately."
   The Washington Post reported Sunday that since November the government has deployed hundreds of sophisticated radiation sensors around Washington, at U.S. borders and overseas facilities. The Post also said the nation's elite Delta Force has been placed on standby alert to seize any nuclear materials detected by the sensors.
   Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said this week in his "Security Gap" report, that 86 of the nation's most sensitive nuclear power plants do not screen workers for terrorist ties and do not know how many foreign nationals they employ.
   Diane Screnci of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's nuclear plants, this week told The Boston Globe that employees are fingerprinted, but as long as they have no criminal record they are not required to pass a security check intended to find and expose terrorist links.
   The NRC issued orders in late February to the nation's 104 commercial nuclear power plants to implement new interim security measures as a result of persistent high-level threats.
   "There's nothing to keep a renegade plane from crashing into a nuclear plant," Mogan said. "But our plants were designed to withstand earthquakes, so they are structurally very sound. Some of the exterior things that are visible -- smokestacks, some of the things that rise vertically in the sky around those plants -- could be damaged by an aircraft and it might disturb people, thinking, 'Oh, my God, they've hit the nuclear plant,' but the dangerous stuff is in very, very hardened locations and it would take a mighty big boom to disrupt that.
   The Transportation Security Administration is under federal mandate to have sufficient explosive detection systems in place by Dec. 31 to screen all checked baggage at more than 400 airports nationwide. As of January, fewer than 170 of the machines had been installed, according to Hinton. Hinton said there is concern that vendors will not be able to produce a sufficient number of machines to meet the deadline.
   Also, he said, the administration needs to hire about 40,000 employees, including more than 30,000 screeners, federal air marshals and others but that the current screening work force may not qualify for screening positions. Hinton said all screeners now must be U.S. citizens who are able to speak and read English, however, at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., up to 80 percent of current personnel do not qualify for employment.
   Col. Mogan said, "It's kind of frightening taking a look at what all they're uncovering around our airports that have been servicing our planes and loading our food on. They've had several stings where they picked up quite a few employees that gained employment through fraudulent identification or were illegal aliens."
   Mogan said the biggest challenges to homeland security, currently, "is in the absence of something significant happening in the last six months, some folks may be inclined to relax and say, 'It's not going to happen around here.' "
   A color-coded terrorism warning system unveiled recently by domestic security chief Tom Ridge, put the nation on yellow alert, meaning there is "significant risk" of attack.
   "Does that mean Tennessee?" Mogan asked, then replied, "No, not necessarily. That's just in general, across the board; but we've got some things that might be attractive to terrorists."
   Col. Mogan said there are contingency plans for identifying chemical agents which might be directed at a public water supply. "The purification process that's available would probably be effective in neutralizing whatever chemical effect was in there."
   Mogan said, "It's always tough to balance the threat against the restricted resources on the state level, but we're optimistic that our needs will be taken care of. Our General Assembly has been very supportive."
   The greatest liability to Homeland Security, he said, is "our short memory," where we might forget what happened to us; and probably the greatest deterrent against a terrorist type of attack -- especially people that would infiltrate into our neighborhoods or into our communities -- is just being alert.
   "Look around and question and report unusual circumstances or activities to your local law enforcement," he said. His office is encouraging a "pyramidal team effort" on intelligence sharing.
   "We've got 200 million people across this nation to apply their eyes and ears to familiar areas and if they see something irregular, they need to bring it to the attention of law enforcement. Everybody can't call the FBI, everybody can't call TEMA; you just overwhelm them," Col. Mogan said.