Jewish World Review May 6, 2002 /24 Iyar, 5762

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Feeling secure about the homeland | Had you attended the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on homeland security the other day, you probably wouldn't have felt too secure.

It wasn't because Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge again declined to appear before the committee on the preposterous grounds that because he is a mere presidential adviser and not a Cabinet member, the constitutional separation of powers prevents it.

The unsettling part was what was said by one of the witnesses who did appear, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, testifying on various aspects of airport and seaport security.

Much of Mineta's testimony was given over to his diligent effort to meet deadlines for getting the new federal force of qualified inspectors in place, both those screening passengers and carry-on baggage (next Nov. 19) and baggage going into the belly of the plane (Dec. 31). Those deadlines, he said, were "tattooed on my forehead."

A testy Chairman Robert Byrd of West Virginia, possibly still seething over Ridge's stiffing of his committee, impatiently prodded Mineta to tell him directly what he really needed from Congress to get the job done, regardless of budgetary restraints put on him by the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget.

Byrd treated Mineta, a former Democratic colleague in the House of Representatives, as if he were just another faceless Republican bureaucrat instead of an old comrade in arms. Mineta for his part steadfastly observed the proper obeisance expected of a congressional witness toward a member of the Senate's select, especially this particularly venerable 84-year-old.

When Republican Sen. Richard Shelby expressed concern that some 150 workers at airports had been arrested for fraudulent possession of badges enabling them to gain entry to supposedly secure areas, Mineta said the arrests only demonstrated the effectiveness of "aggressive oversight" on the part of enforcement officials.

Byrd pressed Mineta to explain why, after Congress voted millions for port security last year, this year's Bush budget terminated it. The chairman also wanted to know why the director of the port of New York was saying he would have to wait for five years for the federal government to produce an assessment of the port's vulnerability. He asked Mineta whether Ridge had told him that New York's priority was so low that the assessment could wait. Mineta blandly replied that he hadn't heard from the homeland security boss.

But the worst was yet to come. Was it true, Democratic Sen. Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin asked benignly, that with all the precautions taken regarding commercial flights by large jet aircraft, passengers and baggage on charter flights using huge planes like the Boeing 747 were not being screened?

Mineta acknowledged that no screening was done of passengers getting aboard a charter of the size of the planes laden with jet fuel that became mammoth terrorist weapons on Sept. 11. Such charters customarily load passengers in a separate area of the airport, where there are no screening facilities. If such a charter subsequently lands at an airport area with a secure screening facility, Mineta said, it is examined upon deplaning. But that, obviously, would not prevent somebody boarding a large charter with the wherewithal to hijack it.

Kohl asked Mineta why, at the least, provision isn't made for use of metal-detecting hand wands, which he said cost about $200, to check boarding charter passengers. Mineta replied: "I will take a look at that."

Kohl said afterward he had earlier raised the question of charter screening three or four times with Transportation Department officials, to no avail. It turns out that Kohl last Oct. 9 introduced a bill calling for security checks on charters, and legislation was passed calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to make recommendations about it, but the resultant regulation specifically said there were "no screening requirements" for passengers or bags on the large charter jets.

According to Kohl's office, an aide, as a test, explored chartering a plane and found it about as hard to do, with a high enough credit card limit, as renting a car. Kohl was incredulous and pronounced the lapse "unforgivable." How about "unbelievable"?

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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03/20/02: The allure and curse of politics
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03/13/02: Reconsidering presidential succession
03/11/02: Murmurs of a war protest
03/04/02: Dems question expanding, paying for the war
03/01/02: More questions about historians' credibility
02/28/02: Early warning on bio-terrorism
02/25/02: Bush rhetoric, at home and abroad
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02/20/02: Challenging Gore for 2004
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02/06/02: The Bush budget: Reality replaces poetry
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02/01/02: Bush keeps Dems on ropes
01/30/02: White House task force secrecy
01/25/02: A politically poisonous congressional session
01/23/02: Whither AlGore?
01/21/02: In search of Tom Ridge
01/18/02: Kennedy takes on the tax fight
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