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US Congress Holding Homeland Security Hearings - 2004-03-16

This week, committees in the U.S. Congress are holding hearings focusing on homeland security, and the terrorist attacks in Spain last week have many lawmakers expressing concern about the nation's terror alert system and transportation security.

As the death toll from the attacks on commuter trains in Madrid passed 200, lawmakers were asking new questions about preparedness.

A House subcommittee examined the Homeland Security Alert System, the color-coded warning levels put into place after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

Critics say it has confused rather than informed Americans, providing little in the way of specific usable information in the event of an imminent threat from terrorists.

Congressman Ed Schrock, a Republican on the committee, said "[Homeland Security] Secretary [Tom] Ridge himself has correctly expressed concerns over the credibility of the system. We are all remiss if day-by-day efforts are not made and implemented which enhance the system's credibility. God forbid, this country should sustain another terrorist attack in the future, but the reality is we had better be prepared."

Ken Allen is executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning, an organization devoted to stimulating discussion about the nation's alert and warning capabilities. He said Americans think an effective warning national system exists, when it actually does not. "This is not a complete warning system. It is merely a threat advisory system. It tells us that something may happen, but it doesn't tell us what, where or when," he said.

Republican Congressman Christopher Shays called the current system insufficient in terms of the information it provides. "I will tell you there will be hell to pay if the public isn't warned about something everybody else knew about in government. And then they will never believe you," he said.

Speaking for the Department of Homeland Security, Retired Army Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes says the terror attacks in Madrid underscore a new reality - the intent of terrorists to carry out simultaneous attacks.

Aside from raising warning levels when necessary, he says the government conveys specific threat information to local law enforcement authorities and "first responders." However, Mr. Hughes said not all information can or should be revealed publicly. "The point of protection of the information probably revolves around the degree to which we can be specific, but at the same time make sure we don't further endanger our public by giving away to those who would strike us some kind of information that would allow them to find a seam or a gap and hit us where we did not expect," he said.

Democratic critics of the Bush administration on the issue of homeland security are already stepping up calls for more money in the 2005 fiscal year budget, now being debated in Congress.

In the wake of the attacks in Spain, some Republicans in the Senate are also urging the administration to create more of a balance between resources going to air and seaports, and funds for railway security.

One Senate Democrat, Joseph Biden of Delaware, said the Madrid attacks should be a "wake-up call" for efforts to improve security on the nation's rail lines.