Chertoff cautions against complacence

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Michael Chertoff, the lean, intense former federal judge who has been running the Department of Homeland Security for three years, worries about more than dangerous people and deadly weapons passing our borders.

He also frets about the nation - and the next president - letting their guard down.

"The biggest obstacle my successor will face is, 'Does the public and does Congress have the will to stick to it?'" said Chertoff, head of the federal government's newest bureaucracy, and one of its most unwieldy. "Or are we going to start to see people cannibalize homeland security because we haven't been attacked for six years, [and] it doesn't seem like it is a burning issue any more?"

Chertoff raised the concern at a breakfast session with reporters last week, during which he gave a generally optimistic view of how the nation's terrorism-protection capabilities have improved during the Bush presidency.

"We've got a lot more to do, but I think we are going to leave for the next administration a pretty well-functioning department that does have a good set of tools that will allow the next managers to come in," he said.

Chertoff's broad concerns about the future of his agency highlight a looming reality: A change in administrations next year could trigger many shifts that affect Marylanders, with homeland security as an important example.

Because of its proximity to the nation's capital, the Baltimore metro area and Washington suburbs are particularly vulnerable to terrorist activity, Maryland leaders say. They want attention to security increased, not decreased.

"The biggest part in all this is the budget commitment," said state Del. Brian K. McHale, a Democrat from Baltimore who is a steamship clerk at the port of Baltimore. "It's almost infinite, the amount of money we could spend."

Homeland security has received uneven attention during the presidential campaign.

Republican John McCain is building his campaign around the notion that, as an ex-Navy captain, he is best prepared for emergencies.

Only Democrat Barack Obama has a dedicated homeland security issue paper on his Web site, and he calls for greater security for chemical plants and the allocation of federal funds based on risk - rather than revenue sharing.

Democrat Hillary Clinton is running a television ad in Texas (site of a Tuesday primary) that uses images of sleeping children to ask which candidate is better prepared to handle a national security incident.

"It's 3 a.m. and your children are safely asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?" asks the commercial, an attack on Obama's experience. His campaign has denounced the ad.

But the Democratic candidates have many other priorities, including health care and education. The challenge for a possible Obama or Clinton administration would be maintaining spending on homeland security, while fulfilling other promises.

Bush's budget, released last month, calls for increasing the Department of Homeland Security's spending by 6.8 percent, to $50.5 billion.

As a heavily populated East Coast city with aging infrastructure, Baltimore and its suburbs have any number of vulnerabilities and can use all available help, as Gov. Martin O'Malley, an outspoken advocate for homeland security from his days as mayor, has long noted.

Rail cars carry chemicals through tunnels under the city. High-profile bridges are used by thousands of travelers daily. Nine million tons of cargo come through the port of Baltimore each year.

Many of those potential threats are being addressed, Chertoff said.

Nearly every cargo container entering ports in Baltimore and elsewhere in the U.S. is scanned for radiation, he said. Before Sept. 11, none were.

"While I understand containers are a potential vulnerability, there is a little bit of a tendency in the media to treat it as the only threat," Chertoff said. "I think small boats are a potential threat. I think general aviation coming from overseas is a potential threat. To be perfectly honest, if you had a nuclear bomb, it might make more sense to bring it in with a private airplane than to stick it into a container."

A 2001 fire in Baltimore's Howard Street tunnel starkly illustrated the risks of rail cargo. The threat from hazardous materials comes mainly if trains remain idle in urban areas, providing a sitting target, Chertoff said. Railroads have enacted policies to cut down on idle time, he said.

Maryland leaders say they are generally satisfied with the level of security at Baltimore's port and in surrounding areas.

"I think their guard is up," said state Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who oversees public safety and transportation spending. "There's going to be competition for every dollar. But your No. 1 focus has to be on securing your homeland. I don't see that changing."

Some glitches remain. DeGrange and McHale have concerns over a new identification card system for employees who need access to the port. The federal program, they say, is less rigorous than the access cards currently used by port workers.

The railroad industry says it wants fewer dangerous chemicals being manufactured, shipped and stored. That's the best way to cut down on risk.

"The only way to really get at the issue is to eliminate the targets," said Peggy Wilhide Nasir, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. The association is calling for water treatment plants to use liquid bleach or ultraviolet light to kill contaminants, for example, rather than hazardous chlorine gas.

When the Blue Plains waste treatment plant in Washington, D.C., made such a switch in 2001, 1.7 million people - including many Marylanders - were no longer exposed to the potential threat of chlorine gas, according to a report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

"When you are moving hazardous materials, there is always a risk," Nasir said. "We need as a nation to move toward safer substitutes, because they are out there."

Maryland's counties and largest cities received $29 million in federal homeland security grants last year, an $8 million increase from a year earlier, according to the governor's office. The grants pay for projects such as improved communications systems for police and firefighters.

That type of funding must continue, even under the next administration, Chertoff said, even if the public never really notices the benefits.

There is a tendency, he said, for politicians "not to want to spend money unless the fruits and the benefits are harvested within an election cycle." The phenomenon has a name: Not In My Term of Office.

"All the things I'm talking about ... if I'm lucky, we will never see the benefit of that during my term of office, because it will have deterred something, or it will have prevented something, and it just won't be visible," Chertoff said. "And that's fine."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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