By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006
Two key Democrats on the House committee that oversees the Department of Homeland Security criticized the agency last week for not releasing to Congress reports on 118 security plans for mass transit, rail, aviation, ports and borders.
Many of the reports were due in 2003.
"The American people deserve more from the Department of Homeland Security than missed deadlines, especially when our nation's security is at risk," said a letter signed by Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) ranking Democrat of its subcommittee on management, integration and oversight.
Department spokesman Russ Knocke dismissed the complaints. He said the department has issued more than 300 reports this year and 972 briefings. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has testified before Congress 19 times, Knocke added.
"The notion that somehow the department is moving slowly in coordinating or providing information to Congress is far-fetched. It's very evident that there is an extraordinarily high amount of congressional oversight of the department's activities," Knocke said.
One late report, according to Thompson and Meek, assesses the impact on travelers' privacy and civil liberties from the Transportation Security Administration's proposed Secure Flight program, which would pre-screen passengers by computer. That report was due March 13, 2004. Another late report focuses on threats from international air cargo; it was due June 15, 2005. Congress also wanted an update on the criteria to be used to consolidate names on the terrorist watch list; that report was due in June 2005.
"Given the below-average performance of the department on so many fronts including emergency preparedness during the past year, adequate assessments of the department's capabilities and plans are not only needed but critical to our nation's security," the letter said.
The Homeland Security Department received a similar request from Thompson and Meek in March 2005. In an interview, Thomson said the reports were needed for Congress to review funding proposals and assess the effectiveness of various strategies.
"In order for us to do a good job as legislators, the department has to respond with appropriate information," Thomson said. "It's as much to our benefit to get the information as it is for them to produce it so that at the end of the day we can have America as safe as possible from either terrorist threat or the ability to respond to natural disasters."
Thompson has been a vocal critic of the agency. At a hearing last week, he said there were numerous critical leadership positions in the department that remained vacant and needed to be filled.