Nearly five years after 9/11, the United States remains far too
vulnerable to natural disaster and major attack.
That's the consensus of security experts and a new federal report
released Friday. Most states and local authorities lag in emergency
planning, the report found. At the same time, the federal government
is still struggling to close big security gaps in airline passenger
screening and port security and at chemical plants, these experts
The reasons are many, they add, but a crucial one is American
industry's limited security efforts. An estimated 85 percent of
critical infrastructure is in private hands. But the Bush
administration has largely resisted mandating the minimum security
standards for business.
"What we've done at this point is look to the private sector to
set their own security standards - and if they're doing it, they're
doing it very, very slowly," says Lee Hamilton, president of the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and vice chairman
of the 9/11 Commission. "It's not working very well, so maybe we
have to think more seriously about government imposing standards."
The result? The nation's guard is down, critics say, or at least
not what it should be.
"We haven't come very far at all in terms of credible security
that would deter a determined terrorist from going after the things
most valuable and vulnerable," says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow
for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in
The chemical industry, for example, has adopted voluntary
standards yet remains highly vulnerable. The risk is so high that if
a worst-case scenario occurred at any of 123 US chemical plants, the
resulting release of toxic gases could put 1 million people at risk
of exposure, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in
While the GAO noted some progress in chemical security, it
reported that only one-sixth of 15,000 facilities with large
quantities of dangerous chemicals are covered by federal security
requirements. And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has no
authority to require minimum standards. In March, DHS Secretary
Michael Chertoff told Congress he needed legislative authority to
mandate minimum standards.
Federal standards would create a "level playing field," says Mr.
Hamilton, who calls the move long overdue. At the moment, companies
that adopt tough security measures put themselves at a cost
disadvantage to those who do not.
"Everyone in the business community knows that we're just a
single event away from the federal government jumping in with both
feet to tell us how to do it," Dr. Flynn says. So taking unilateral
steps, which might not square with future federal mandates, looks
risky, he adds. "No sector is going to make a substantial investment
under these conditions. If they don't see the government on board
with it, they're not in a position to do anything."
There are also legal liability reasons businesses may hold back.
How much security is enough to avoid a jury verdict after an attack?
It's hard to know without a standard.
"The government needs to be able to say 'This is what is required
- A,B,C, but not D - and if you fail to do D, we recognize your good
faith effort,' " Flynn says.
Railroad industry takes initiative
One industry that has broadly taken the initiative is railroads.
Companies have drawn up their own emergency response plans and have
even conducted war games using their own prioritized list of crucial
infrastructure. Yet, without federal leadership, states have been
reluctant to supply national guard troops for practice sessions and
some key infrastructure goes lightly guarded, crimping preparedness,
a senior railroad official says.
Those shortfalls and others were again hammered home in a major
review of national preparedness unveiled Friday. …