U.S. Struggles to Rank Potential Terror Targets

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

The U.S. government has made limited headway in identifying and securing the domestic targets whose destruction would pose the greatest threat to American lives and national defense, experts and former government officials said.

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general reported last week that a department target list has grown exponentially -- from 160 in 2003 to 28,000 in 2004 to 77,069 today -- but it is filled with bean festivals, car dealerships, small-town parades and check-cashing stores.

Indiana has the most potential terrorism targets in the National Asset Database: 8,591, nearly three times as many as California. Washington state lists 65 national monuments and icons, nearly twice as many as the District of Columbia.

"It is absurd that at least 32,000 of the 77,000-plus assets in our National Asset Database are sites of no national significance," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Boxer led the Senate on Thursday to bar certain DHS officials from spending on travel until they correct what she called "gross mismanagement."

The uproar over the list echoed that following the department's decision in May to slash risk-based grants to New York and Washington by about 40 percent, while increasing awards to cities such as Sacramento and Louisville.

The twin controversies highlight the government's latest struggle toward accomplishing the fundamental tasks of identifying targets most vital to the nation's health, economy and security; ranking them; and deciding how to secure them using scarce tax dollars.

President Bill Clinton signed a White House directive in 1998 that called for the country to come up with a plan to defend its vital infrastructure from attack by 2003. President Bush called again for a national plan in December 2003.

Yet, despite $18 billion a year in government spending, "It appears that DHS is not yet able to base its critical infrastructure resource allocations on risk analyzed in a systematic manner," the Congressional Research Service said this spring.

Former security officials say the failure to produce such a document borders on irresponsibility.

"It doesn't seem we have made progress in the last eight years," said Michael A. Vatis, appointed the first director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center by Clinton. "I don't think this aspect of the homeland security mission has ever been given any sort of real priority or high-level attention."

Retired Coast Guard Admiral James M. Loy, deputy secretary of homeland security from 2003 to 2005, agreed. "Even in the face of how hard this is . . . we are working on the fifth year after 9/11 -- one would think that window of time would be adequate," Loy said.

"When you're dealing with 1,000 priorities, . . . this is one that would certainly be among the top 10," he said. "It does sort of fall back on the accountability of leaders in DHS and the Homeland Security Council to keep the pressure on."

Homeland Security officials largely blame the delay on the profound challenge of terrorism. In an open society, how does one defend a seemingly infinite number of targets, knowing that terrorists will adjust to hit evolving weak spots? And at what point does the defense prove more costly than an actual attack?

Resolving those questions requires enormous amounts of data and politically sensitive judgment calls, they said. At the same time, Bush administration officials disagree over how much to regulate private industries that control 85 percent of vital assets, such as power plants and air, sea and rail networks. Private firms are reluctant to share security information, and federal agencies and states have been sluggish to cooperate.

Robert B. Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, said Homeland Security relies on the 77,000-item database only as an information source for more refined analyses of critical targets. For example, in 2004 the department identified a subset of 1,849 key installations, although it later deemed that list to be unreliably subjective and weighted too heavily toward mass gathering places such as arenas and stadiums.

Still, department officials defend the database, which also included petting zoos, doughnut shops, popcorn stands and ice cream parlors.

"What happens the very first day that al-Qaeda attacks a convenience store chain times a dozen across the country?" Stephan said. "If al-Qaeda switches to golf courses or amusement parks or whatever, we better have some of those things in the database so that we know what that universe of things is that we have to worry about."

Using more rigorous formulas, the DHS now focuses on about 600 sites and is spending $125 million over two years to secure the nation's 103 nuclear power plants and 273 largest chemical plants.

Reviews have been done for about 40 nuclear plants and chemical facilities around Detroit. Plans should be done for Chicago and Los Angeles by September, and Houston, northern New Jersey and the lower Delaware River next year, Stephan said.

The department will turn next to liquefied natural gas facilities, oil refineries and pipelines, dams and mass transit, he said. Still, those targets account for only about a third of the 17 sectors identified by the national security community. "This is going to be a continuing, evolving analysis," Stephan said.

The department recently delivered a National Infrastructure Protection Plan, due in 2004 under Bush's order, but it awaits more detail by year's end, he acknowledged. That feeds criticism from congressional analysts that the NIPP "represents the plan for developing a plan."

"In all fairness to DHS, it really is just a very challenging . . . exercise," said Christine E. Wormuth, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But she said she hoped administration leaders do not view the homeland as indefensible.

"I don't think you can just opt out of the problem," Wormuth said.

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