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Official Checks West Coast Security

The second in command of the new federal department gets a close look at California ports and bridges.

March 10, 2003|Carol Pogash | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The newly named deputy secretary of Homeland Security came West last week and praised local efforts to maintain safe ports but avoided specifics about his department's role in securing potential terrorist targets.

Gordon England, the former secretary of the Navy, said the newly formed department will establish priorities for America's security needs through the study of infrastructure vulnerability and information analysis. Consideration will be given to potential consequences to human life and the economic well-being of the nation, he said.

During a visit to Los Angeles before visiting the Bay Area, England said he was impressed with what he called the "fully integrated effort" at the Port of Los Angeles, where people from numerous agencies have been screening vessels and boarding those that match a certain profile to keep the port secure.

The second in command under Secretary Tom Ridge, England was appointed to his new position a month ago. With the transfer last week of about 170,000 federal employees from 22 departments, the new department became operational. In California, England met with his department's new employees and with business owners, government officials and reporters.

England said little about the department's specific efforts to deal with potential targets.

Asked whether the department has plans for such entertainment centers as Disneyland, for example, England said the Homeland Security Department will not provide security for private organizations.

"We can provide insight and assistance, but at the end of the day," he said, Disney "will provide the resources they need for their particular assets." The former General Dynamics executive added: "Organizations and CEOs of organizations have a fiduciary responsibility to protect their assets and their people."

Informed of his remarks, Disney officials did not appear overly concerned.

"Over many years, we've made a substantial investment in security," said Leslie Goodman, a spokeswoman for Disney's theme parks worldwide. Disney has always considered the safety of its employees and guests the highest priority, she said.

"The most valuable resource the government can offer," she said, "is information," and Disney has good contacts with the FBI.

Asked about the safety of cargo containers, England said, "We actually inspect the source before the containers are loaded.... That gives you high confidence."

The inspections at international seaports, however, are done by local workers who are neither screened nor hired by American officials, according to a federal expert on container security who declined to be named. Because inspections are being conducted at the mega-ports, the expert said, terrorists are more likely to strike at smaller ports.

Speaking to reporters from the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis Hotel with a view of the Bay Bridge, England was asked about measures his department is taking to secure bridges. He again did not provide details, but said that much is being done and more will be.

Some disputed that claim.

"Things have not changed much" over the last few years, said Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Periodically, random trucks are inspected, access roads closed and a bomb-sniffing black Labrador retriever, one of only three in the Bay Area that is rotated from one high risk spot to another, checks out questionable vehicles.

Almost daily, Currie said, her office discusses the credibility of threats with the FBI. The FBI is not part of the Homeland Security Department.

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