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U.S.: Legislators Question Security Chief A Week After London Attacks

Michael Chertoff, U.S. President George W. Bush's secretary of homeland security, came under tough questioning from members of both houses of Congress yesterday, a week after the terror attacks in London that left at least 54 people dead. Some legislators complained that his agency was doing little to secure the United States despite evidence that Muslim militants show no sign of ending their campaign against what they see as their Western enemies.

Washington, 15 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Several of the legislators expressed concern and frustration that Chertoff has missed a deadline to issue a formal restructuring plan for the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which is part of his agency.

The report was due 1 April, but Chertoff said the reorganization program was so complex that it would not be ready until the beginning of 2006.

Not good enough, said Representative Nita Lowey, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Lowey represents a district in New York, which was a principal target of the attacks of 11 September 2001.

Lowey, a member of the opposition Democrats, said her constituents are demanding more responsiveness from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), especially in protecting commuter rail lines.

"If you sense that we are anxious, I think we're entitled to feel that way. And I understand that you're coming here and that you put a plan in place, but we don't have the luxury not to consider what just happened [in London] as a wake-up call and to act now in addition to putting the plan in place," Lowey said. "So when April 1 is a deadline for a comprehensive transit plan -- this is July, Mr. Secretary."

Chertoff -- who was not even nominated to his position until six months ago -- told Lowey that his department and the TSA have been improving transit security even in the absence of a restructuring report.

And the secretary reminded the committee that commuter rail lines are enterprises run by the governments of states or localities within states. He said these jurisdictions are helping the TSA secure their transportation infrastructures.

"I wouldn't want people to walk away with the impression that the fact that we haven't submitted a formal plan means that we're not planning and doing things at transit stations and train stations," Chertoff said. "And one thing I also want to make clear is: This is not a federal issue exclusively. We are working with state and local transit authorities. The general level of security in trains has increased since before 9/11 [the attacks of 11 September 2001] and since before Madrid."
The experiences of London and Madrid may show that America's commuter buses and trains are probably prime targets of militants.

Still, the vice chairman of the committee, Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson (Mississippi), said he believes the experiences of London and Madrid -- the site of a commuter rail attack on 11 March 2004 -- shows that America's commuter buses and trains are probably prime targets of militants.

In his opening statement at yesterday's hearing, Thompson said he said he had frequently asked himself whether Chertoff's approach to reorganizing the TSA has given proper priority to commuter transit.

"Will the department's proposed reorganization prevent what happened in London from happening here? Unfortunately I concluded 'No.' While TSA has focused on aviation -- some would say with mixed results -- rail security has become the forgotten stepchild," Thompson said. "Indeed, the department has spent less than 7 percent of the money it received this year to inspect and patrol rail lines. This is unacceptable."

Chertoff addressed the issue later in the hearing, under questioning by Thompson, saying all transportation systems are getting appropriate attention.

"We are focused on TSA and where we need to make adjustments in the manner that TSA operates," Chertoff said. "It's important to make sure TSA is focused on all of its transportation missions and -- although I think that's been the case up to now -- the new administrator, I know, is very interested in making sure that we are adequately addressing land and rail transportation as well as, of course, aviation transportation."

At the Senate hearing later in the day, Chertoff was reminded of an interview he had given to AP. He told the news agency that extra attention had to be paid to airline security because an attack with a single hijacked airliner could kill thousands at once, while a single bomb on a bus or a train might kill only 30.

Chertoff stood by that remark before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, saying the number of deaths and extent of damage were valid criteria for giving commercial air transportation a higher priority than commuter lines.

But Chertoff said security for surface transportation around the country was being improved. He cited an increased use of closed-circuit television cameras, more police guards, and even a system to detect a chemical attack in the subway systems of the three leading cities of the eastern United States: Boston, New York, and Washington.