Democrats say Bush administration failing to protect country from possible terror attacks

Friday, January 16th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite creating a Homeland Security Department and spending $10 billion to screen airline passengers and secure the nation's airports, the Bush administration hasn't done enough to protect the nation against the threat of terrorism, Democrats maintain.

Minority Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee make the charges in a scathing report, which was being released Friday.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press, lists a dozen areas where Democrats say the administration has failed to adequately address weaknesses that terrorists could exploit more than two years after the suicide hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001.

Texas Rep. Jim Turner, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, told reporters Friday it was unclear how much the government must spend to resolve the problems identified in the report.

``The real question we must ask when we talk about funding a stronger homeland defense is, what is the cost of failure?'' Turner said. ``The threat to lives, the threat of a catastrophic attack would be unthinkable. Whatever the cost is certainly worth it in terms of the lives and safety of the American people.''

The Homeland Security Department said the report ``woefully ignores'' what has been accomplished thus far.

``It is unfortunate that there are those in Congress who merely point out criticism, rather than propose concrete solutions on how they can work with the administration to make America safer,'' department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan cited a number of steps taken: waging the global war on terrorism, creating the Homeland Security Department, giving new resources to first responders and port security, tightening borders, improving aviation security through professional screeners, air marshals and reinforced cockpit doors, raising alert levels, and inaugurating a program to photograph and scan the fingerprints of foreigners from many countries arriving at U.S. airports.

``Our country is much safer today than it was on September the 11th,'' he said. ``We are doing everything we can to protect the American people and prevent an attack from happening in the first place, but there is much that remains to be done.''

The 16-page document _ ``America at Risk: The State of Homeland Security'' _ culls information from the Pentagon, congressional investigators and other sources, summarizing dangers to U.S. cities, borders, ports and airways. Taken together, the information shows the administration hasn't provided the leadership necessary to handle the country's domestic security needs, Democrats say.

``In conducting oversight for almost a year now, our committee members are deeply concerned that our government is not taking strong and swift enough action to protect the homeland,'' Turner said.

The report comes four days before President Bush's annual State of the Union, even more important this year given the November election. Democratic staff said the document is intended to prepare party members to rebut what the president might say.

According to the report:

_ The Transportation Security Administration has spent more than $10 billion to screen baggage and passengers since November 2001, yet there are numerous reports of dangerous items clearing security. Roehrkasse said that figure includes a host of expenses, including hiring and training a federal screening work force, purchasing explosive detection technology and deploying air marshals.

_ Al-Qaida and other groups are believed to possess thousands of shoulder-fired missiles, but U.S. commercial airplanes have no defense against the weapons. Roehrkasse says the administration is working on ways to counter missile threats.

_ The Pentagon's Defense Science Board says that at least 56 new countermeasures are needed to protect against the 19 bioterrorism agents. Democrats say little progress has been made and the government is failing to sufficiently address the threat.