9/11 panel's recommendations are far reaching

Many suggestions affect ordinary people

July 29, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - From setting federal standards for driver's licenses to requiring air passengers to pass through elaborate bomb-detection machines, the report of the Sept. 11 commission contains more than a dozen recommendations that would significantly affect the daily lives of ordinary people.

The measures - separate from the commission's more publicized call for restructuring the intelligence community - could cost billions and spark strong debate as lawmakers hasten to respond to the panel's scathing critique of U.S. security.

"What the commission is recommending would involve a vast injection of dollars, people and political support by the White House and Congress," Paul C. Light, a New York University professor specializing in government bureaucracy, said this week. "This piece of the report is actually very detailed and aggressive."

President Bush might soon adopt some of the security recommendations by executive order - possibly including a proposal that border and transportation security agencies develop a common strategy for screening travelers.

But the commission's blueprint for homeland security could encroach on some liberties now taken for granted.

A spur-of-the-moment trip to Canada or Mexico without a passport might well become a thing of the past. "Americans should not be exempt from carrying ... passports or otherwise enabling their identities to be securely verified when they enter the United States," the report said.

Other recommendations - notably an overhaul of the formula for distributing federal homeland security grants to the states - carry a steep political price. The current formula, which is considered generous to rural areas at the expense of urban centers, would be replaced by one that allocates money based on likely threats and vulnerabilities.

Internal administration calculations show that under the new formula about half the states would receive only token sums.

Though the changes may not be easy, the commission said a better-organized and more extensive homeland security system would complement intelligence community reforms.

"Defenses cannot achieve perfect safety," said the report. "They make targets harder to attack successfully, and they deter attacks by making capture more likely. Just increasing the attacker's odds of failure may make the difference between a plan attempted, or a plan discarded."

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is largely pleased with the commission's proposals, his spokesman said. "Many of the recommendations codify the work that the department has been doing over the last 1 1/2 years," said Brian Roehrkasse. "Many are also consistent with our top priorities."

But where Homeland Security has been taking incremental steps to test new ideas, the commission is recommending a series of quick leaps.

Airport screening is one example. The commission recommended that the government "soon" screen passengers for explosives, especially those singled out for more intensive searches.

The possibility of explosives hidden on a person's body now constitutes an aviation security loophole. Checked luggage, carry-on articles and, in some cases, shoes are inspected for explosives, but a suicide bomber concealing a device under his clothing could theoretically get past the screeners and metal detectors.

The Transportation Security Administration has begun a pilot program to test a walk-through explosives detector at five airports, including San Diego International. Built by General Electric, the device looks an elaborate metal detector and works by testing the air around a person for microscopic traces of explosives.

The government has not decided yet whether to install such detectors at 450 commercial airports. At $132,000 apiece, it would cost about $240 million to equip each of 1,800 security lanes at airports around the country. That estimate doesn't include the cost of installation, maintenance and additional personnel to operate them.

The added level of security could also lead to longer lines. The process of checking for explosives takes about 14 seconds. In comparison, it takes a second or two for a person to step through a metal detector.

Congress and the administration are going to have to make some tough choices, said commission staff director Philip Zelikow.

"If you want to do a cost-benefit analysis, how much did the Sept. 11 attacks cost?" asked Zelikow. "They almost destroyed the American aviation industry. Put that alone against the cost of safety measures."

The commission also called for a greater federal role in securing transit systems, railroads and other forms of transportation. "Over 90 percent of the nation's $5.3-billion annual investment in the TSA goes to aviation - to fight the last war," the report said

But its vision for protecting U.S. borders is even more sweeping. The panel called for a high-tech system that would use digital photographs, fingerprints or other such "biometric" information to positively identify people entering or leaving the country.

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