A false sense of security

May 06, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Had you attended the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on homeland security the other day, you probably wouldn't have felt too secure.

It wasn't because Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge again declined to appear before the committee on the preposterous grounds that the constitutional separation of powers prevents it because he is a mere presidential adviser and not a Cabinet member.

The unsettling part was what was said by one of the witnesses who did appear, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, testifying on various aspects of airport and seaport security.

Much of Mr. Mineta's testimony was given over to his diligent effort to meet deadlines for getting the new federal force of qualified inspectors in place.

A testy Chairman Robert Byrd of West Virginia impatiently prodded Mr. Mineta to tell him directly what he really needed from Congress to get the job done, regardless of budgetary restraints put on him by the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget.

Mr. Byrd treated Mr. Mineta, a former Democratic colleague in the House, as if he were just another faceless Republican bureaucrat instead of an old comrade in arms. Mr. Mineta steadfastly observed the proper obeisance expected of a congressional witness toward a member of the Senate's select.

When Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama expressed concern that about 150 workers at airports had been arrested for fraudulent possession of badges enabling them to gain entry to supposedly secure areas, Mr. Mineta said the arrests only demonstrated the effectiveness of "aggressive oversight" on the part of enforcement officials.

Mr. Byrd pressed Mr. Mineta to explain why, after Congress voted millions for port security last year, this year's Bush budget terminated it. The senator also wanted to know why the director of New York's port was saying he would have to wait five years for the federal government to produce an assessment of the port's vulnerability. He asked Mr. Mineta whether Mr. Ridge had told him that New York's priority was so low that the assessment could wait. Mr. Mineta blandly replied that he hadn't heard from the homeland security boss.

But the worst was yet to come. Was it true, Democratic Sen. Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin asked benignly, that with all the precautions taken regarding commercial flights by large jet aircraft, passengers and baggage on charter flights using huge planes like the Boeing 747 were not being screened?

Mr. Mineta acknowledged there was no screening of passengers getting aboard charters the same size as the planes that became mammoth terrorist weapons on Sept. 11. Such charters customarily load passengers in a separate area of the airport where there are no screening facilities. If such a charter subsequently lands at an airport area with a secure screening facility, Mr. Mineta said, it is examined upon deplaning. But that, obviously, would not prevent somebody boarding a large charter with the wherewithal to hijack it.

Mr. Kohl asked Mr. Mineta why, at the least, a provision isn't made for use of metal-detecting hand wands to check boarding charter passengers. Mr. Mineta replied: "I will take a look at that."

Mr. Kohl said afterward he had earlier raised the question of charter screening three or four times with Transportation Department officials, to no avail. Mr. Kohl introduced a bill Oct. 9 calling for security checks on charters, and legislation was passed calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to make recommendations about it. But the regulation that was adopted specifically said there were "no screening requirements" for passengers or bags on the large charter jets.

According to Mr. Kohl's office, an aide tested the system by exploring how to go about chartering a plane. He found it about as difficult as renting a car, assuming there was a high enough credit card limit. Mr. Kohl was incredulous and pronounced the lapse "unforgivable." How about "unbelievable"?

Jules Witcover's column appears in The Sun Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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