Homeland Security Dept. Gets ‘Gentleman’s C’ in its 2006 Report Card

Date: Monday, March 06, 2006
By: Michael H. Cottman

According to a congressional report released last week, the Department of Homeland Security failed to prepare and respond to Hurricane Katrina last year and cannot adequately safeguard the nation’s airports, seaports and subway systems.

Among his criticisms in the 2006 Annual Report Card for the Department of Homeland Security, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the Department is underfunded, could not react effectively to a bio-terrorist attack and “does not inspire much confidence.”

The committee gave DHS an overall grade of a “gentleman’s C.”

“President Bush has bragged of being a C student at Yale, but a gentleman’s C for the Department of Homeland Security as it relates to job performance, terrorist threats and natural disasters is not good enough,” Thompson told BlackAmericaWeb.com last week. “We have to get it right.”

The congressional committee gave the Department a grade of D in the area of Emergency Preparedness and Response, saying the department’s performance “fell well below expectations” after Hurricane Katrina and “exposed significant flaws in our ability to prepare for and respond to catastrophic events.”

“The latest [Katrina] fiasco is about housing,” Thompson said in an interview. “We have 11,000 trailers in Arkansas, but we’re putting people out of hotels with no place to go.”

The department’s failures, according to the report card, also included emergency response problems, contract mismanagement, and, most recently, the agency’s role in approving a foreign government’s purchase of U.S. port terminals.

Thompson said America is “vulnerable” in many areas because the Bush administration has not allocated enough funding for DHS to do its job effectively.

Specifically, Thompson’s committee graded a number of key areas inside the Department of Homeland Security, which consists of more than 180,000 employees from 22 agencies and offices.

“In our oversight capacity,” Thompson said in the report, “we have more questions than answers on the Department’s progress.”

Here is a partial analysis of the congressional report card:

Emergency Preparedness and Response: The Department’s grade in this area is a D. Hurricane Katrina exposed significant flaws in our ability to prepare for and respond to catastrophic events. Emergency plans at all levels of government, including the National Response Plan (NRP), failed the nation. Current plans underway by Secretary Michael Chertoff to separate response and preparedness functions cause us concern and raises questions about whether our nation will be prepared for the next hurricane season, which is less than 100 days away.
Port Security: The Department’s grade in this area is a C-/D+. In addition to the recent uproar over the Dubai port terminal sales, there are many gaps remaining in our port security. As some experts have noted, the current port security regime is a “house of cards,” in which containers are often not inspected and the government does not truly know which containers are “high risk.” Likewise, the federal government remains unaware of security arrangements at foreign ports and vessels shipping goods to the United States.
Aviation Security: The Department’s grade in this area is a C+. Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the Department’s Office of Inspector General, and the 9/11 Commission have each identified vulnerabilities in aviation security that remain unaddressed. The three most significant identified in this study are sabotage by “sleepers” among airport workers, a terrorist being allowed to board a U.S.-bound plane before being checked against the terrorist watchlist, and an attack emanating in the air cargo hold.
Surface Transportation Security: The Department’s grade in this area is a C-. The Department’s proposed FY 2007 budget currently allocates less than 1 percent of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) funds to surface transportation security, despite the recent subway bombings in London last year, and train attacks in Madrid the year before. At the same time, TSA has failed to mandate security plans, risk assessments and training for surface transportation.
Biosecurity: The Department’s grade in this area is an incomplete. A bio-terrorist attack on the United States could have devastating consequences. Furthermore, bio-terrorism and naturally occurring biological events, such as a SARS or avian influenza pandemic, could possibly be indistinguishable. As such, our bio-defense should be constructed using an “all hazards” approach. Unfortunately, as the current scramble to prepare for a possible avian influenza pandemic demonstrates, the federal government is not prepared for a biological emergency—whether natural or manmade.
Chemical Plant Security: The Department’s grade in this area is a C-. Currently, the Department of Homeland Security does not have legal authority to enter a chemical facility and ensure that security programs are in place. The Department must have regulatory authority to ensure that chemical plants are putting the necessary security practices in place.
Cybersecurity: The Department’s grade in this area is a C. The agency has made limited progress towards securing our nation’s cyber infrastructure. For the past 16 months, the National Cyber Security Division has been led by an acting director, and the Assistant Secretary for Cyber Security and Telecommunications post remains vacant. Failure to find permanent replacements for both positions raises serious concern about the Department’s ability to lead the nation in securing cyberspace.
Thompson’s criticism of the Department came as a leaked video recording shows Bush being warned about the potential for disaster days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, although the White House maintains that Bush was not aware of the likelihood of its devastation.

“We have video. We hear what’s being said,” Thompson told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “For the president to continue to be in denial is an insult to the American public.”

But the White House insists the video only confirms the president was engaged and responsive.

“The president has made clear that he was not satisfied with the federal response,” said Trent Duffy, the White House Deputy Press Secretary. “That is why he ordered a comprehensive ‘lessons learned’ report and plans to work aggressively to implement improvements to our disaster response plans by the start of hurricane season.”

Last week, in a teleconference call with reporters, civic leaders and public policy experts talked of public and private partnerships to assist Katrina survivors and discussed the challenges ahead for Gulf Coast homeowners.

Amy Liu, deputy director at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said median home prices in New Orleans have actually increased in the last three quarters of 2005.

“What this means is that families are purchasing homes, but because of the limited supply, home prices and rents are actually going up,” Liu said. “This raises concerns about whether families and workers can find affordable homes.”

Meanwhile, the congressional report card also coincides with a new CBC News poll that shows President Bush’s approval ratings have dropped to 34 percent—an all-time low. The latest survey suggest more Americans want troops to withdrawal from Iraq. The poll also reflected growing concern over the issue of allowing a state-owned Arab company take over key operations at six U.S. ports.

Thompson said the Department of Homeland Security also has serious problems with “leadership,” adding that the nation’s seaports, airports, subways and chemical plants remain at risk. “There is still a clear and present danger,” he said.

Calls to the Department of Homeland Security by BlackAmericaWeb.com were not returned. But on the Department’s website, it says the Department has recently implemented “a multi-layered strategy to keep U.S. ports safe and secure. Since 9/11, federal funding for port security has increased by more than 700 percent, new technologies have been deployed, and additional technologies are being developed.”

The department also says it responded adequately to survivors of Katrina. “Within the first six days of the response, the federal government delivered more than 28 million pounds of ice, 8 1/2 million meals, and 4 million gallons of water. This exceeds the combined totals for the entire recovery operation during Hurricane Andrew,” according to the website.

“This report card just reiterates that the Department of Homeland Security is satisfied with mediocrity,” Thompson said, “but the American people are not.”

Posted by loni on 03/07 at 08:01 AM in News

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