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U.S. to Set New Rules for Fight on Terrorism

Policy: Homeland security chief Ridge says the focus is on critical industries, with private firms sharing the cost.

April 04, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Homeland security director Tom Ridge served notice Wednesday that the federal government planned to set new safety standards to protect Americans from terrorism and would expect private industry to bear some of the cost.

In a wide-ranging interview with a group of reporters, Ridge said his office was preparing to move beyond the current phase of identifying weak spots in American security and would draft measures for corrective action by midyear.

The new guidelines, addressing such areas of concern as ports, airlines, trains, food, water and nuclear plants, are expected to set off a fierce lobbying battle from industry groups.

Ridge's comments about the responsibilities of private businesses came in response to a question about the nation's waterworks industry, which includes both public and private utilities. It has asked for $2 billion in federal aid to safeguard the nation's water supply.

But he made clear that the same logic would apply to a wide variety of potential targets.

"My view has been that if it's a private company, a profit-making enterprise, then the responsibility for enhanced security is really your responsibility," Ridge said. "That doesn't mean that the federal government does not set standards; we have been and will continue to do so."

The government's homeland security plans have been the focus of scrutiny and concern from private industry leaders, who say they realize they have a role to play in making the U.S. more secure but are worried that new rules may be costly and potentially counterproductive.

And lawmakers say they expect heavy pressure from powerful industry groups wanting the government to help them meet any new security requirements.

"The overarching mantra here is that everyone is going to be asked to sacrifice to improve homeland security, and that's going to include corporate America," said David Sirota, a spokesman for Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "How that exactly plays out I can't be sure."

Sirota, however, said the fact that there is little room for any discretionary spending "only strengthens the need of large corporations to chip in and do their part."

Tom Curtis, a spokesman for the American Water Works Assn., said his industry continued to believe the federal government should help both its public and private members respond to heightened security needs. Members of his group lobbied Congress and administration officials last month for such assistance.

Curtis said the bioterrorism bill currently before Congress would require about 7,500 water utilities to draw up risk assessment plans, a step the industry estimates would cost $450 million.

"If utilities are going to be required to do this work and do it on a very quick schedule, many utilities will need some support," Curtis said.

President Bush appointed Ridge to the newly created position Oct. 8, and the security chief has hired about 100 staff members to help him carry out the president's promise to make Americans less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Nearly six months on the job, Ridge painted a picture Wednesday of a task only just begun. Preliminary steps have been taken to improve the security of the airlines, ports and food supply, but inspectors lack important tools such as those that could easily detect biological weapons.

Calling the more than 40 agencies that have some hand in homeland security an "extraordinary bureaucratic maze," Ridge said that while Bush has given him license to assess what changes may be needed, he "will not recommend reorganization simply for reorganization's sake."

Ridge played a large role in the Bush administration's decision to earmark nearly $40 billion for homeland security--a fact that has Democrats demanding that he testify formally to congressional committees.

He said he planned to speak informally to two House committees in the next weeks: Government Reform next Thursday and Energy and Commerce on April 17. But he said that his appearances would be for the purpose of discussion, not testimony.

As a former member of Congress, he said, he understands the tension between the legislative and executive branches.

"I also served as governor and now serve a president and understand there are people around an executive who should be accessible but not compelled to testify, and I fall into that category," he said.

The wrangling over homeland security spending and direction extends throughout the industries most directly affected by heightened security concerns.

While there is little argument about the need to do more to safeguard consumers post-Sept. 11, there is disagreement about what form such changes should take.

The American Chemical Council, for example, says its members would like guidance from federal security experts on the greatest risks they face.

But council spokesman Chris VandenHeuvel said his group believed the American people would be best served by the government "making recommendations and then leaving it to private industry to spend the resources necessary to make that happen--with credible third parties verifying it was done."

Ridge also defended his five-color terrorism alert system, which went into effect last month. He said the system will, in the future, signal to both governmental agencies and private companies what levels of protection they need to maintain for national security.

At present, the degree of alert is yellow, the midpoint between the highest alert (red) and the lowest (green). Despite escalating violence in the Middle East, he said there are no plans to raise the alert level.

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