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Poughkeepsie Journal September 11, 2005

Homeland security still vulnerable, experts say

By Nik Bonopartis

As the U.S. maintains two war fronts under the banner of the War on Terror, glaring weaknesses remain in homeland security four years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, law enforcement and terrorism experts said.

The terrorist attacks have produced a strong response on some fronts. Local and federal agencies have drawn up new plans for dealing with emergencies. There are reports of unprecedented cooperation. And security initiatives have received more funding.

Those changes have been driven by hard lessons for emergency authorities about communication and command structure in a chaotic environment.

While subsequent commissions and studies have tried to tackle those issues, the recent troubles with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina should give pause to emergency planners here, said Joseph King, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

King said the Sept. 11 attacks aren't a good comparison for problems authorities could face if an attack happens elsewhere, because few areas in the U.S. have departments the size of the NYPD and FDNY.

"In Suffolk County, there are 15 separate chiefs of police for 15 separate departments," King said. "How much coordination would there be if a chief feels his authority is undermined or there are multiple attacks?"

King said there has been a newfound emphasis on countywide and statewide coordination, and in Dutchess County police and fire agencies have worked toward that goal.

Although political campaigns have been run on the promise of safety and security, and politicians regularly invoke the memories of Sept. 11 in speeches and television appearances, government has largely ignored critical issues of border and mass transit security, and money earmarked for homeland security isn't always spent efficiently, watchdog groups said.

On the 4,000-mile Canadian border, only 1,000 border patrol agents keep watch at any given time, and about 10,000 agents are posted on the more heavily trafficked border with Mexico, according to the National Border Patrol Council. The union represents about 8,000 border patrol agents.

That means at any given time, only about 25 percent of those agents are watching the borders, because the 11,000-strong border patrol work force must split its manpower to cover several shifts over the 24-hour daily cycle, said T.J. Bonner, the council's president.

"Agents are amazed that nothing has changed within the four years since the 9/11 attack," Bonner said. "There is no increased emphasis on stopping terrorists at the border. As long as the borders are wide open and anyone can come across, anyone includes the lieutenants of al-Qaida."

Data: Arrests double

Statistics show the number of non-Mexican illegal aliens arrested at the U.S.-Mexican border has nearly doubled in the past four years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. That alarms some security analysts who fear terrorists could be among those crossing illegally.

"Literally millions of people cross the borders every year, and you can't stand before the public and say that there are not terrorists in that mix," Bonner said.

Of particular concern to residents of the Hudson Valley, which includes many commuters, is mass transit safety. The risks to commuters have been highlighted by the Madrid subway attacks of March 2004 and the London subway attacks earlier this year.

Stateside, authorities have taken measures to safeguard against attacks on subway and rail systems. Emergency plans have been installed. More police are posted. Bomb-sniffing dogs are used in greater numbers. Many train stations are equipped with blast-resistant garbage containers.

Even with random searches by NYPD officers at subway stations in light of the London attacks, access to most subways remains unfettered. There are no checks on commuter lines going into New York City.

It's unlikely the public would accept security restrictions on trains that cause the kind of delays people have become accustomed to at airports, said Francois Boo, a research analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based analysis group.

"Obviously, it's a concern as a point of vulnerability. But the reason for having a mass-transit system is convenience," he said. "The emphasis has been more on prevention and mitigating the incidents, if they happen, and closing off potential vulnerabilities."

Much like with port security, some claim it would be too expensive and too manpower-consuming to check every package or rider.

Funding issues raised

At the same time, money that could be used to shore up security in vulnerable areas is being diverted to rural areas with minimal risk of terrorist attacks, or private companies that have little to do with public transportation.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a non-partisan government watchdog group, pointed to one example of Premiere Yachts, a cruise company that rents out party boats and received $208,000 in port security money under the last appropriations bill.

That example is one of several in the group's "2005 Congressional Pig Book Summary," which cites what the group claims is government waste.

"Clearly, if a terrorist is already over the border, he's not going to target a dinner cruise," Schatz said.

In the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack that affects Dutchess County, police and fire agencies will look to the Department of Emergency Response for direction.

Detective Jeff Wilkinson of the Dutchess County Sheriff's Office is one of several local investigators who meet monthly with a task force that covers Dutchess, Ulster and Columbia counties.

Investigators from every agency in Dutchess hold separate meetings each month to discuss intelligence and information passed along by federal authorities.

Local authorities, who are in a position to see more of the street-level warning signs, send intelligence back to their federal counterparts.

"One of the things New Orleans has shown is when something like that happens over a wide geo-area, no one agency is going to be equipped to respond to all the needs that will crop up," Wilkinson said. "There are difficulties to overcome as far as communication between different agencies."


Copyright 2005, Poughkeepsie Journal