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Lawmakers urge refocusing security efforts

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on February 15.)

WASHINGTON -- The government may be spending too much time and money seizing knives and other potentially dangerous items from airline passengers and too little on preventing terrorist attacks against other forms of transportation, lawmakers said Tuesday.

Senate Commerce Committee members described the Transportation Security Administration's airport screening work force as too focused on hijackings, a vulnerability that has been reduced by other security measures put in place since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

``I'm not sure screening is in tune with the future,'' said Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. ``Do we really need to spend more money on knives and nail files?''

Stevens said chemical weapons and explosives are now bigger threats than hijackers using a plane as a weapon.

TSA chief David Stone acknowledged much has been done to prevent terrorists from taking over a plane, from enhanced screening of passengers and bulletproof cockpit doors to armed pilots and more federal air marshals.

But, Stone said, intelligence shows terrorists still are interested in using airplanes ``both as a delivery system and as a target.''

Stevens and the committee's senior Democrat, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye, plan to introduce a bill to refocus the priorities of the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the TSA.

``Aviation security has received 90 percent of TSA's funds and virtually all of its attention,'' Inouye said. ``There is simply not enough being done to address port, rail, motor carrier, hazardous material shipment and pipeline security.''

President Bush proposed giving TSA $5.6 billion in 2006. Of that, $2 billion is budgeted for airline passenger screening and $1.45 billion for airline baggage screening. Security for seaports, railroads and energy facilities would get a combined $600 million.

The committee also signaled that the proposed increase in the airline passenger security tax -- from $2.50 per leg of a flight to $5.50 -- will have tough sledding in Congress.

``I'm going to shoot 'em down, and I think I'll have plenty of help,'' said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. ``I think you're wasting money all over the place.''

The tax funds aviation security initiatives. Stone said the Bush administration believes airline passengers should bear the burden of those costs. The tax hike would increase their share of the government's security costs from 36 percent to 73 percent, he said.

The cash-strapped airline industry vehemently opposes the tax, arguing that it will cost aviation jobs and make it harder for airlines to recover from their financial woes.

Senators also questioned why the Homeland Security Department only seeks to apprehend potential terrorists when they show up at airports and are found to be on the no-fly list.

``Aren't we missing things by screening only airline passengers?'' Stevens said. ``Don't you have any plans for expanding the system of security?''

Stone said the TSA would submit a security plan for all modes of transportation on April 1. The plan was due on Dec. 31.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

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