WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department is more than a year behind in creating a list of chemical plants, bridges, skyscrapers and other vulnerable sites that could become terrorist targets if plans aren’t made to protect them.
President Bush ordered the plan to be completed by December 2004.
A year after that deadline and nearly three years after the department was created to protect the nation against terrorism, officials still don’t have a workable database of possible targets.
The former commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks released a report card this month that rated the government’s anti-terrorism security, and vulnerabilities assessment got a near-failing grade.
Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, says he’s frustrated by the lack of progress. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the committee, calls it «appalling» that the plan isn’t done yet.
Homeland Security Infrastructure Protection chief Robert Stephan, the man in charge of the plan, blames his predecessors for bungling the job and says he will have it done early next year. A draft of a plan to protect the nation’s most vulnerable sites was recently completed.
Stephan, who took over in April, told Congress recently that when he looked at the work done on the project before he was put in charge, «a sinking feeling rapidly came over me.»
Stephan did not discuss details of the classified database of possible targets, which is kept secret so terrorists can’t find out more about sites considered vulnerable to attack. Members of Congress say early versions included mini-golf courses and water parks but didn’t include some key sites, including parts of the New Orleans levee system.
«It’s pathetic,» says Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., also a member of the Homeland Security committee. «This was supposed to be the critical infrastructure list, and it’s the kitchen sink.»
Stephan says there are 80,000 sites in the database and he’s going through them to determine what should be left on and what should be taken off. «That thing really got under my skin,» he says.
But he says it’s not useless, even in its present form.
When it’s done, the list will be used to help federal officials set priorities for permanent security protections that should be put in place. It will guide private industry and state and local governments about how to beef up security at their businesses and in their towns.
It also can be used, as it was in 2004 when officials reported a threat against financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., to identify sites and people who need to be contacted.
Stephan says the list was used more recently when New Orleans flooded to identify chemical plants, refineries, bridges and other important sites that had been wiped out or damaged.
He says the «mini-golf courses and bowling alleys» have all been taken off the list.
In October, during a hearing on the plan and database, Lungren told Stephan, «We have heard, you know, this plan’s going to be coming out, it’s going to be coming out, it’s going to be coming out. We tend to look with a little skepticism.»
Now, Lungren says he’s pleased some progress is being made.
Thompson is skeptical of the project’s value. «The National Infrastructure Protection Plan strikes me as another governmental document doomed to be more of an intellectual exercise than a practical provider of security,» he says. «I’m afraid it will likely sit on a bureaucrat’s shelf next to the dozen or so other national strategies gathering dust and doing little to secure America.»
December 14, 2005