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By sea or rail, as well as air, security loopholes linger

(The following article by Ron Marsico was posted on the Newark Star-Ledger website on July 23.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has spent billions to address many of the security failures listed in the 9/11 commission's report, but experts say numerous weaknesses remain for terrorists to exploit.

Vast problems persist with airline security despite a federal takeover from private companies. Little has been done to safeguard railroads in the wake of the Madrid train bombings in March. Relatively few shipping containers at the nation's ports are inspected.

"We do believe we are safer today than on 9/11 -- but we are not safe," warned Thomas Kean, the commission chairman.

The panel's report said that while the United States "has committed enormous resources to national security" since the day the suicide hijackers struck, far more must be done to safeguard the nation. Its recommendations included further efforts to disrupt travel by terrorists -- by beefing up border security, developing an extensive biometric screening system to perform iris or fingerprint scans on travelers and upgrading identification documentation.

"The thing about terrorism -- especially in an open society -- is you've got a million vulnerable points," said Roy Licklider, a Rutgers University professor with expertise on terrorism issues.

Since 9/11, much of the federal government's security resources has been spent on safeguarding airplanes. Congress authorized higher-paid, better-trained federal security screeners to replace the often-criticized private force. All pieces of checked luggage were to be scanned electronically for explosives, and some pilots were trained to carry guns in cockpits.

But security lapses continue at airports around the nation. Dangerous items still bypass checkpoints, and screener staffing shortages are common.

At Newark Liberty International Airport, for example, federal officials acknowledged in May that they were not electronically screening 100 percent of checked bags. They then scrambled to make corrections and declared they had solved the problem.

"We are absolutely better prepared today than we were three years ago," said Mark Hatfield, chief spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which primarily oversees the nation's aviation security initiatives.

"We'll never have the luxury of declaring the job finished," Hatfield added. "Some of the problems we've dealt with are inevitable."

In January, Newark, other airports and seaports around the country rolled out US-VISIT, a program that scans fingerprints of foreigners traveling to the United States with visas. The government also plans to require biometric passports -- with chips bearing digital photographs -- for travelers from 27 nations where visas are not required for short visits to America. A deadline for the high-tech passports had been postponed from October because of technical concerns; the government is debating an extension of one or two years.

The 9/11 commission said the TSA and Congress "must give priority to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers." Currently, passengers go through metal detectors and their carry-on luggage goes through an X-ray machine -- procedures not specifically tailored for finding explosives.

"That's one of the biggest holes," said Steve Elson, a former member of the Federal Aviation Administration's investigative Red Team that found pre-9/11 lapses in aviation security.

Elson chided the commission for making "very generic recommendations" to improve security.

"The 9/11 commission didn't hold anyone accountable ... for the failures of the entire aviation security system," said Elson. "No accountability. No remedies."

The commission's report said 90 percent of TSA's annual $5.3 billion budget goes to aviation security, noting that other transportation areas -- such as port security -- remain vulnerable as well.

"Initiatives to secure shipping containers have just begun," the report found.

"Everybody sort of says that's the major vulnerability, and I think they're right," said Licklider, the Rutgers terrorism expert, who said major improvements in port security will be difficult. "That's very big money and very big inconvenience."

The panel also found that "railroads and mass transit remain hard to protect because they are so accessible and extensive."

The TSA recently began testing airport-style security procedures on passengers and baggage on certain Amtrak trains. Hatfield, the agency spokesman, said such checks "can be used where you have intelligence or located a specific vulnerability" on rail lines.

Sidney Caspersen, New Jersey's counterterrorism director, praised the report in general, but he questioned whether revamping the nation's intelligence hierarchy during wartime is the best course, fearing potential delays in getting security information.

"What I want to see is information pushed down to the locals as soon as possible," said Caspersen, "so we can get it on the street. ... We in this country are every day dealing with new threats."

Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, endorsed the commission's finding that likely terrorist targets such as New York City and Washington, D.C., deserve a bigger slice of the limited federal security dollars. The Port Authority, which oversees the region's airports, bridges, tunnels and port, has earmarked $500 million in its current five-year capital plan for security improvements.

"It's important that the federal government provides the necessary resources to respond to those threats," said Coscia.

Friday, July 23, 2004

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