Seven months after the terrorist attacks on America, members of Congress and state and local officials are still coming to grips with the concept of homeland security. Security experts are warning that time is of the essence.
University of Pennsylvania security analyst Stephen Gale tells the Senate Appropriations Committee that the United States remains ill-equipped to handle another terrorist attack, despite the emphasis on homeland security since September 11.
"I fully expect that the next round of attacks from al-Qaida will almost certainly be directed at disrupting and possibly disabling the U.S. economy. And as far fetched as this may sound on the surface, I believe that this threat is not only real, but at least under the current U.S. policies concerning homeland security, disturbingly feasible, even in the near term," Mr. Gale said.
Professor Gale said future attacks could target the nation's electrical power grid or water supplies.
Those concerns are very much on the minds of the state governors who have come to Washington seeking federal help for their own specific homeland security concerns.
Among them is Washington State Governor Gary Locke, who said, "We must have sustained federal financial assistance since the federal government has the primary responsibility for homeland security. For our state, that means an immediate and long-term financial commitment to bolster the security of our seaports and other infrastructure such as railroads, highways, and bridges."
The Bush administration has asked for an additional $38 billion to fund homeland security next year. But those needs vary from state to state and accommodating those requests is a major challenge for Congress.
For example, Georgia Governor Roy Barnes said he needs federal help to cope with the threat of bioterrorism. "Georgia has critical needs for equipment, supplies, and technical support. But the most critical need is for staff to establish and maintain a bioterrorism preparedness and response program," Mr. Barnes said.
Another critical challenge is coordinating homeland security among federal, state, and local officials.
Michigan Governor John Engler said even basic requirements such as emergency communication systems have proven difficult to establish. "Different agencies within the Justice Department in the past had funded different local communities with systems that could not talk to each other. And today I think that is a luxury we can no longer afford," Mr. Engler said.
Security experts also tell the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Office of Homeland Security, headed by Tom Ridge, needs to do a better job of deciding which U.S. domestic targets are most vulnerable.
Democrat Robert Byrd chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee said, "It is essential that the American people have confidence that their government is acting swiftly and intelligently to address their concerns."
Senator Byrd said that while the federal government will play a central role in coordinating homeland security, states and local communities must be given some flexibility to spend money where they think it is needed most.