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U.S. can’t protect all targets, Chertoff says

(The following article by Eric Lipton was posted on the New York Times website on September 12.)

WASHINGTON -- Congress and the American public must accept that the government cannot protect every possible target against attack if it wants to avoid fulfilling Al Qaeda’s goal of bankrupting the nation, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate committee Tuesday.

Osama bin Laden, Mr. Chertoff said, has made it clear that scaring the United States into an unsustainable spending spree is one of his aims. In a 2004 video, Mr. bin Laden, the Qaeda leader, spoke of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”

“He understood that one tool he had in waging war against the United States was to drive us crazy, into bankruptcy, trying to defend ourselves against every conceivable threat,” Mr. Chertoff said at a hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We have to be realistic about what we expect and what we do. We do have limits, and we do have choices to make.”

The direct reference to Mr. bin Laden echoes what is now a week’s worth of tough talk by the Bush administration about him, a move Democrats call a politically motivated effort to refocus the nation, and its voters, on the war on terror instead of the troubled conflict in Iraq.

Mr. Chertoff said his message was not political, but simply a recognition of reality and the tough choices he must make.

Moving ahead will require billions of dollars in spending to finish installation of radiation detection equipment at ports by next year, build fences or high-tech barriers at borders to control illegal immigration, enhance railroad safety programs and install new explosives detection equipment at airports.

In the short term, money will be spent to inspect all cargo packages delivered by individuals to the airports, closing what has been a loophole in the security system. The department, in the next month, will also announce new freight rail regulations for trains that carry highly toxic chemicals. The rules may limit how long railcars are allowed to sit in place and how they are built.

But the list of initiatives cannot be limitless, Mr. Chertoff said. A mandate, for example, that every cargo container headed into the United States be X-rayed and subject to a radiation scan before it leaves a foreign port to search for a possible nuclear bomb is not now feasible, he said.

Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, was trying on Tuesday to persuade him to consider such an effort.

“I put my daughter in my car,” Mr. Chertoff told Mr. Lautenberg. “If I wanted my daughter to be 100 percent safe, I’d put a five-mile-an-hour speed limit cap on the car.” But that is not an option, he added, “because that’s more safety than we can afford.”

Mr. Lautenberg seemed unimpressed. “If we inspected one out of 20 people going into the White House for tours, or coming into this place, would we feel secure?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Others who spoke at the hearing, including Richard A. Falkenrath, the deputy commissioner for counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department, questioned just how good a job Mr. Chertoff was doing divvying up his limited resources.

Mr. Chertoff, since he was named secretary in February 2005, has talked of the need to make spending risk-based, but his department has also been lambasted for compiling a list of possible targets that included a petting zoo, a bourbon festival and a popcorn factory, while at the same time it cut antiterrorism grants to high-risk cities like Washington and New York.

Mr. Falkenrath said the department was focusing too much on screening cargo containers, when the greater threat in American ports, like the attack on the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 showed, was from a small boat packed with explosives pulling up aside a ship or a ferry. It is spending $9 on security per airplane passenger, he said, but less than half a penny on each mass transit rider.

“There’s something wrong with this,” said Mr. Falkenrath, a former White House deputy homeland security adviser. “Terrorists are attacking the subway system worldwide.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

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