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Covering the Department of Homeland Security

ASK THIS | July 19, 2004

Questions for Department of Homeland Security officers — if you can get them to talk — and for members of Congress. (First in a series on homeland security.)

By Judi Hasson

Q: Are there plans to close the borders or parts of the borders — land, air or sea — during the Democratic or Republican Conventions? How long would it take to actually close the borders if there is a credible threat?

Q: What is the status of consolidating the terrorist watch lists? Who has access to them right now? And just how many lists are there?

Q: Has DHS deployed chemical, biological or airborne detectors in the event of a biological attack? Are they in use in the nation’s capital and in New York City and Boston, where the political conventions will be held?

Q: How long would it take to inoculate a community in the event of a smallpox attack? (See "C.I.A. Sends Terror Experts to Tell Small Towns of Risk," NY Times, July 17.)

Q: The Justice Department is planning to ask members of American Muslim communities if they know anything about potential terrorist activities. They conducted this kind of fishing expedition shortly after 9/11. But is there any evidence that it will produce any results? (See "Interviews of Muslims to Broaden," Washington Post, July 17)

Q: Many have charged that U.S. ports are an open invitation to terrorists. What has been done to make sure that terrorists don't smuggle in weapons of mass destruction?

These are reasonable questions to ask DHS public affairs officers or principal officers who may make themselves available to the press. But there's a problem: The Department of Homeland Security is one tight-lipped agency, often failing to provide details reporters need. We’ve all see heightened alerts with no explanation of how or why intelligence agencies think there may be an attack.

There are some ways to attempt to deal with this impasse. The first is to have clear questions in hand at the outset. A second is to examine the DHS Web site, www.dhs.gov, which contains a great deal of information, especially in its research and technology section.

Another suggestion, if DHS officers aren't helpful, is to try members of Congress, particularly Democrats who have been critical of the department, including Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking Democrat on the Select Committee on Homeland Security.

An extra tip: One way to find out what DHS and other federal agencies are planning is to go to www.fedbizopps.gov. It’s the federal government’s procurement site. By searching "Department of Homeland Security" and other agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Justice Department, you can see what kinds of contracts the federal government wants to award and the kinds of new ideas to fight terrorism they are seeking from industry. Caution: Classified projects are not listed here.

Next: Covering homeland security in your community.

Sec. Tom Ridge Q&A on Post Recovery Plans for Nuclear Attack on Washington D.C.
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10/03/2004, 02:36 AM

Secretary Tom Ridge, Department of Homeland Security

Commonwealth Club CA. July 23, 2003

Q: The Continuity of Government Commission is considering the consequences of a small nuclear attack or lesser WMD on the executive branch and Congress.

How do we prepare the nation for the low-probability but catastrophic event if it were to take place, like 9/11?

A: With the globalization of science and education and travel and commerce, we now know that under ideal circumstances it is a possibility that somewhere down the road a terrorist organization could acquire or make a crude nuclear device.
We know that.
You all know that earthquakes can happen out here, and the folks in Florida understand that from time to time there’s a possibility that a hurricane may strike them.

There are certain things that we know about the environment within which we live.
And unfortunately, post-9/11, we know there is a possibility that a weapon of mass destruction, and conceivably a crude nuclear device, could be deployed.

Let’s accept the reality of that possibility and low probability. Let’s prioritize as we’ve done within the Department of Homeland Security the kind of detection equipment and some other initiatives that we can undertake now in order to reduce that probability even further.

As we expand our network of partners in the coalition of the war against terrorism, we’re going to have more actors and more information, so that if we do get credible information and discover that somebody somewhere has a device of this kind that could be used against us or any of our allies, we’ll be able to interdict it before its use.

I know that a terrorist attack is maybe not the best comparison with a natural event, but accept the notion that there is a possibility; people prepare for it to the extent they can, go about their lives the way they should, and let the professionals and the folks in the Department of Energy and the military and everybody else worry about detection and interdiction down the road.
Tom Ridge - July 23, 2003

The Department of Homeland Security's Web site
See especially the research and technology section

Web site of Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas)
Turner is the ranking Democrat on the Select Committee on Homeland Security

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