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Canceled Flights Discussed by US Lawmakers at Congressional Hearing

The latest cancellations of commercial flights to and from the United States were a backdrop to congressional hearings Thursday on Capitol Hill dealing with homeland security.

The Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, Christopher Cox, said the latest flight cancellations demonstrate how intelligence is being put to use to protect Americans.

However, he added that while progress has been made since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, much remains to be done to streamline the operations of the 22 agencies now within the Department of Homeland Security.

"After September 11, there was an understandable rush to provide whatever funding is necessary that was called 'homeland security.' But as the president has so often stated, this war on terrorism is a long-term war and simply spending more each year is not a strategy," he said. "Instead we need to get smarter about how and where we spend our homeland security dollars."

The top Democrat on the committee, Jim Turner, put it more bluntly. "America continues to face serious security gaps," he said. "It really doesn't matter whether you look at our ports, our land borders, our bioterrorism preparedness, or our chemical plants, up and down the line, there are substantial security gaps that remain and are open to exploitation by terrorists."

Responding to these statements was Tom Ridge who has run the Department of Homeland Security since it was formed one year ago. "The Bush administration is asking Congress to approve a substantial increase for the department, for everything from border, port and aviation security to steps against biological terrorism," he said.

With the latest flight cancellations on the minds of everyone at the hearing, Mr. Ridge referred specifically to resources aimed at making flying safe for the public.

"One of the greatest concerns of Congress and the American public since September 11 [2001] of course has been aviation security. Thus it continues to be an area of high priority for our budget and we've requested a 20 percent increase this year," he said.

The request to Congress includes $820 million for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to improve airport screening. Money is also designated for research to perfect technology that could be used to screen cargo aboard aircraft.

However, some Republicans and Democrats are angry that stronger action is not being taken more quickly. These critics were taking the TSA and the Homeland Security Department to task in a separate hearing.

John Mica, chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said bureaucracy has created "layers of costly administrators" that may prevent the agency from ever being effective. He and others focused again on the question of airport screening.

"Another thing that is of great concern to me and members of this committee is the lack of progress on 'next generation' screening and explosive detection technology. That delay puts us further behind in addressing security threats and reducing our army of screening personnel," he said.

Back in the Homeland Security hearing, screening of cargo aboard commercial passenger and cargo aircraft, which is not now taking place, was the subject of an exchange between Mr. Ridge and Democratic Congressman Ed Markey.

"Is it a funding question as a result, as to whether or not you are going to screen all cargo?" asked Mr. Markey.

"And the answer is, congressman, as soon as the RFPs [Requests for Proposals] are responded to, the TSA and the S&T [Science and Technology] laboratory can confirm that they will do the job that we want them to do then we come back to answer the question with regard to funding," he said.

Congressman Ed Markey calls that answer from Mr. Ridge "unsatisfactory," and has introduced legislation to close what he calls dangerous loopholes in aviation security.

Among other things, it would require physical screening of all cargo on passenger aircraft as well as mandatory training for crews and flight attendants in anti-terrorist tactics.