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A To-Do List for Chertoff

By Clark Kent Ervin
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A21

If, as expected, the Senate confirms Judge Michael Chertoff to be the next secretary of homeland security, he will be greeted in his new office by an overflowing in-box and a long to-do list. It will be hard to figure out what to do first, but that has to be his first order of business. Here's my unsolicited list of priorities.

• The department must finish compiling a list of the nation's most critical infrastructure and then rank the sites and sectors according to which are most at risk of terrorist attack and most vulnerable to it. According to members of Congress who have seen the list compiled so far, there is no apparent rationale for some entries other than parochialism and pork. For example, it is hard to believe that al Qaeda has much interest in attacking municipal golf courses or amusement parks other than those named "Disney." And while the financial network, the energy sector, the transportation system and the food and water supply are all critical to U.S. security, some components within each category are more critical than others, some more at risk of attack and some more vulnerable to attack.

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Complicating the picture further is the fact that 85 percent of America's critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector, which has been reluctant to protect itself (and which the government has been reluctant to prod into protecting itself). So the secretary will need to induce the private sector to act more quickly to protect itself by signaling a willingness to support the stick of regulatory action if the carrot of persuasion fails.

• It will be hard for the department to develop a credible list of critical infrastructure or to do much else, really, if it lacks intelligence on what the threats are and which are to be taken most seriously. While the bad news is that we can't protect ourselves from every threat, the good news is that we don't really have to. Some threats are bigger than others. And some aren't, in the overall scheme of things, that much of a threat at all. But without access to good intelligence, and without enough expert analysts to interpret it, the department won't be in a position to tell the difference.

As it stands now, the Department of Homeland Security is on the margins of the nation's intelligence network, and the recent reorganization of the intelligence agencies could make this situation worse. The secretary will need to flex the muscles he built up in interagency fights at the Justice Department to ensure that DHS becomes more than a spectator in the detection and assessment of threats against the homeland.

• The secretary will need to instill rigorous financial discipline in the fledgling department. At a hearing last week, influential senators made it clear that DHS is unlikely to get significantly more money anytime soon. It's easy to see why some legislators feel this way when the department has proved to be so inept in accounting for what it has and so profligate in spending it. The state of its books is chaotic; one component had no idea of how much money it was taking in and sending out. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau had a shortfall of between $150 million and $200 million, resulting in a hiring freeze, a travel ban and the premature release of some illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration was paying one contractor nearly $50 million for little or no work and letting that contractor take as profit a percentage of its costs.

• Finally, the secretary will need to work overtime to address the remaining security gaps. To cite just a few: Too little attention has been paid and too few resources devoted to modes of transportation other than aviation. The department has been too slow to deploy equipment and technology that can significantly aid human airport screeners in detecting concealed weapons and explosives. And border inspectors have admitted illegal immigrants carrying stolen passports into the United States even when the inspectors' computer screens indicate that the passports are stolen.

The new secretary of homeland security will certainly have his work cut out for him. All Americans must wish him success. The security of our homeland will depend on it.

The writer is former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. He is now director of the homeland security initiative at the Aspen Institute.

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