U.S. congressional Democrats are expressing skepticism about plans to reorganize the Homeland Security Department, saying they would not stop attacks like those in London last week. Their comments come as the Senate is concluding work on a homeland security funding bill.
Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff explained his plan to reorganize his agency to members of the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees Thursday, a day after announcing the proposal.
The plan is aimed at streamlining the bureaucracy to better detect and stop a terrorist attack that could involve weapons of mass destruction.
But Democrats were not convinced the plan would prevent the kind of attacks that occurred in London a week ago.
"The London bombing last week, coupled with the Madrid bombing last year, should be a wake-up call to us all that our trains and transit systems are an attractive target for terrorists. I have asked myself the question, will the department's proposed reorganization prevent what happened in London from happening here? Unfortunately, I have concluded 'no'," said Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Democrats noted that the government has spent nearly $20 billion on aviation security since the September 11, 2001 hijacking attacks, but only $250 million on rail and transit security.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Chertoff defended the funding priorities. He said, in his words, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill three-thousand people, while a bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you are going to think about making sure you do not have a catastrophic thing first.
When asked if his comments meant communities should be ready to provide the bulk of the protection for local transit systems, Mr. Chertoff said it would.
Democrats were livid when they learned of the comments, saying it is the federal government's responsibility to secure the nation's rail system.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, called Mr. Chertoff's statement appalling. "I am asking Mr. Chertoff to withdraw his statement and apologize; apologize to those who have lost loved ones and apologize to every transit user in New York and around the country," he said.
At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, expressed similar concerns about Mr. Chertoff's comments. "The Secretary offered an explanation, saying U.S. mass transit systems are largely owned and operated by state and local authorities," he said. "A lot of the folks who do the actual work and a lot of the manual day-to-day stuff is held by local governments, and some by private (sector), for example bus lines and things of that sort. So our responsibility is the same but our way of interacting is going to be different. The help we can give transit authorities, for example, may come in a different form than what we do with respect to airlines,"
The Homeland Security Committees met to discuss the reorganization plan as the Senate was concluding work on the department's budget for next year. The legislation funds more border patrol agents and detention and deportation officers, bolsters port security, and steps up efforts to better detect and prevent a biological or radiological attack.
"This bill is focused on threat, that was the purpose of this bill. It realigned our efforts as a Senate to focus the homeland security effort on what are the priority threats, the number one threat being weapons of mass destruction, the number two threat being that our borders are so porous," said.Senator Judd Gregg, sponsor of the bill.
The House of Representatives passed homeland security legislation in May. Differences between the Senate and House versions will have to be reconciled before a final bill is sent to President Bush for his signature.
Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for President Bush's nominee to be Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Henry Crumpton.
Mr. Crumpton, who has served as the head of the counterterrorism center at the Central Intelligence Agency and as a top anti-terrorism official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testified.
"If confirmed, I expect to travel often, engaging with our ambassadors overseas and with our foreign partners, especially our Muslim allies who are waging the true jihad against our common terrorist enemies," he said.
Mr. Crumpton is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.