O'Malley accuses Bush of weakness on homeland security

Mayor offers 8-point program to protect metropolitan areas

August 03, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Mayor Martin O'Malley accused President Bush yesterday of missing opportunities for progress on a wide range of fronts by failing to provide metropolitan areas with the resources they need to counter an increased risk of terrorist strikes.

In a televised speech before the National Press Club, Baltimore's mayor criticized what he called the "weak defense" position of the Republican-controlled White House and Congress on homeland security issues.

O'Malley contrasted Bush's policy on homeland security with the free-spending ways of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on interstate highways and President Ronald Reagan on national defense.

"In Washington today, the traditional strong-defense values of the party of Abraham Lincoln are found only in the words carved on the cold walls of his memorial," the mayor said in a speech that was covered live on C-SPAN.

In a speech that sounded more like that of a presidential candidate than a man running for governor, O'Malley laid out an eight-point program for protecting metropolitan areas and transportation facilities from terrorism.

Appearing before the press club during the traditionally slow month of August, O'Malley drew a full house estimated at more than 300 to what was billed as "a mayoral perspective" on homeland security issues.

Much of the speech echoed past comments from O'Malley, an early and often pointed critic of Bush's efforts to secure the country. But there were a few new wrinkles, as well as a new emphasis on the opportunities that could be created as a spinoff of homeland security investments in health, economic development and crime-fighting.

"States like Maryland have the opportunity to grow their economies by making needed contributions in a war where technology, science and medicine are the keys to victory," he said.

O'Malley's comments came less than two weeks after he was invited to be in the audience as Bush, seeking a full extension of the Patriot Act, delivered a speech on homeland security at the Dundalk Marine Terminal in which the president emphasized the cold-bloodedness of terrorists and the threats to the United States.

After his speech yesterday, O'Malley said he did not intend his remarks as a response to the president, whom he did not mention by name.

"If they are a counterpoint to his philosophy, they should be," said O'Malley, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' committee on homeland security.

Among other things, O'Malley criticized the administration's efforts at securing the nation's maritime trade, contending that even at the port of Baltimore - which has sophisticated new scanning equipment - only 10 percent of incoming containers are inspected.

The mayor pointed to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Hong Kong is now scanning 100 percent of the containers going through its port.

"If a port like Hong Kong can scan 100 percent of its cargo, why not ports in the United States of America?" he said.

The mayor also pushed for increased use of closed-circuit video security cameras - a technology Baltimore has adopted extensively - in other American cities. He argued that such systems could serve a dual role in preventing terrorism while also curbing drug-dealing.

O'Malley has come under criticism for some of his earlier remarks about Bush, including one in June 2004 where he said he was more afraid of the administration's policies than he was of al-Qaida, but yesterday he was careful to phrase his criticisms in a less incendiary way.

"One view is that our homeland security should be a federal funding responsibility - that it is the responsibility of all Americans to contribute to her defense during a time of war," he said. "The second view says homeland security should be a local funding responsibility - that the people of a poor city or a rich suburb should do the best they can, using local taxes and the proceeds from fire hall bingo nights."

O'Malley said that "unfortunately" the second view is held by the president and Congress.

The mayor received a standing ovation, though not everyone was impressed.

Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican, said that if she had to choose between homeland security spending and improving city schools, she would put more emphasis on educating children.

But former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, a Maryland Democrat who said he has been working in the homeland security field for the past three years, agreed with O'Malley's contention that the United States is mired in an "affliction of complacency."

"We are at war, but the American people don't feel it," McMillen said. "I don't think the average American understands the threat to this nation and our way of life."

James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, found O'Malley's remarks predictable.

"For a Democrat from a city that's broke, everything's a federal responsibility," said Gimpel, who has consulted for national Republicans. The federal role in protecting the country is something virtually everyone, including the Bush administration, agrees on, Gimpel said.

"Would anyone in the Bush administration really quarrel with that? Would anyone in the Ehrlich administration really quarrel with that?" he asked.

For the full text of the mayor's speech at the National Press Club, go to baltimoresun.com/speech.

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