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Homeland Security official says infrastructure protection a constant task

(The following article by Mark Coddington was posted on the Grand Island Independent website on March 23.)

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- Nearly six years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the struggle to protect the nation’s infrastructure from terrorism is as difficult as ever, an official from the Department of Homeland Security said on Thursday.

“It is an everyday, perpetual cat-and-mouse game between the offense, which is them, and the defense, which is us,” said Col. Bob Stephan, the department’s assistant secretary of infrastructure protection.

Stephan spoke at the third annual Nebraska Infrastructure Protection Conference, which began on Thursday at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island.

The two-day conference was first organized by Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy and then U.S. Attorney Michael Heavican. The aim is to provide a place for private and public officials to share ideas about protecting the state’s infrastructure from any type of hazard, be it terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster, Sheehy said.

Sheehy acknowledged that many Nebraskans don’t consider themselves threatened. But he cited this winter’s ice storms as evidence that it only takes a day to put the state’s infrastructure in danger.

Stephan commended officials for vast improvements in the nation’s preparedness for an attack or disaster since 2001. Still, he said, an ever-broadening threat calls for continued action.

He said some of the nation’s counterterrorism efforts have shifted from stopping terrorists from entering the country to rooting out potential terrorists who are already in the country as U.S. citizens.

The threat has also increased as the nation’s infrastructure has become more interconnected, he said. Consequently, the effects of a local attack can quickly have national implications.

That has led the department to expand its idea of infrastructure beyond bridges, tunnels and chemical plants. The nation’s infrastructure contingency plans now include less-tangible areas such as food, agriculture and water.

The department’s regulations have been rewritten this year so that those areas, plus public works and public health, are eligible for terrorism-related grants, Stephan said.

Stephan said one of the biggest elements in infrastructure protection is getting the private sector and local, state and federal government officials to work together to create cohesive plans.

That planning must create a unified front even down to the most localized levels of leadership, he said.

“You have to be willing to be part of the solution to the problem,” he said. “You have to be willing to set your individual turf consciousness aside.”

Stephan said the department took major steps toward unified planning in the past year with the creation of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, which included input from state and local government officials.

Each of the department’s 17 infrastructure sectors have created their own individualized plans, which are awaiting final approval from the Bush administration, he said.

Sheehy emphasized the importance of public/private partnerships within that planning framework. About 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is privately owned, he said, so it’s crucial for those private groups to be as prepared as government officials.

This year’s conference drew a mixture of about 140 public and private officials, from ag groups to utilities to emergency managers.

Sheehy said some of the most important aspects of the conference were happening between the workshops, when attendees were able to mingle and become familiar with one another before disaster strikes.

“This is all about bringing groups together, creating relationships and creating collaborations,” he said.

Friday, March 23, 2007

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