Ervin: DHS fails security mission

HILTON HEAD, S.C.'Clark Ervin was strolling down a Manhattan street in April 2005 when the red light on his BlackBerry indicated he had a message. The former inspector general of the Homeland Security Department looked at the device and saw that the Associated Press had reported the results of the latest IG investigation on airport security. Those results showed no improvement in screeners' abilities to detect deadly weapons, compared with the results of similar investigations done in 2001 and 2003.


'It was far easier than it should have been even after the [Sept. 11, 2001] attacks for government investigators to sneak these weapons through,' said Ervin, who served as the department's first IG for about two years. He recounted the story in his keynote speech today at the 26th Annual Management of Change Conference sponsored by the American Council for Technology and by the Industry Advisory Council, to illustrate an important point.


That point is that DHS, for the most part, has failed in its mission to secure the country from attacks in key security areas, such as aviation, ports, mass transit, borders, intelligence, emergency preparedness and response, and cybersecurity.


'The American people remain far more vulnerable to a terror attack than we should be,' said Ervin, who currently is the director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit, cultural think tank that promotes nonpartisan inquiry on various topics. The Homeland Security Initiative examines issues related to homeland security, assesses the progress the government has made in securing the homeland, and makes recommendations for making the country safer.


Before he left DHS in December 2004, Ervin had inspectors investigate airport security at several different airports nationwide to determine if security screening improvements had been made. While airport screeners are much better trained today and are more aware of their roles as 'the last line of defense before another group of would-be terrorists board airplanes,' they still fall short of the mark, Erwin said. He cited the recent example of congressional investigators working for the Government Accountability Office, who were able to sneak bomb components undetected through security checkpoints at 21 airports. Ervin also pointed out that commercial airlines carry about 20 percent air cargo, virtually none of which is inspected.


While the 47-year-old, conservative Republican was mostly critical of DHS' performance, he said the department had made some strides in aviation security by investing $18 billion to $20 billion after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Cockpit doors on planes are heavier and are locked, some pilots are armed and more air marshals are present on flights.


In the area of cargo security, the government is inspecting only 6 percent of the containers entering the country's ports, Ervin said, adding that the Automated Targeting System that the Customs and Border Protection agency uses to determine which cargo containers to inspect is flawed according to investigations by his former office and the GAO. The data on cargo is largely based on the paperwork that the shipping industry submits, which can be changed for up to 60 days after the cargo arrives, he said.


Likewise, the Container Security Initiative, under which DHS has agreements with about 40 ports worldwide to have cargo inspected at the ports of origination before it reaches U.S. shores, has problems. According to the GAO, more than 80 percent of the time, foreign inspectors refuse to examine cargo that the U.S. deems to be high-risk, he said.


'All the experts agree that the likeliest way for a terrorist to sneak a weapon of mass destruction into our country would be through one of the 26,000 cargo containers that come into our 361 seaports every single day,' Ervin said.


With mass transit, DHS must make permanent the security measures it used in some U.S. cities in response to the Madrid commuter train bombing in spring 2004 and the London subway bombings last summer, Ervin said. After these incidences, the U.S. government had armed police and bomb-sniffing dogs in and around train and subway stations and used more surveillance cameras, bomb sensors and radiation sensors only until the news headlines disappeared. The U.S. government spends only $250 million to secure the mass-transit sector even though about 33 million people use it every day'60 times the number of people who use airplanes, he added.


DHS also needs to secure the country's borders with both Mexico and Canada to prevent foreign terrorists from entering, if they haven't already done so, Ervin said. Under the Homeland Security Act that created DHS, the department was supposed to be the central clearinghouse for all intelligence about threats against the homeland and to serve as the consolidator of the various terrorist watch lists that different agencies had. But DHS is still 'on the outside of the intelligence community all these many years after Sept. 11, with its nose against the glass looking in,' he said.


Emergency preparedness and response is another area where the government has fallen short. Although Hurricane Katrina was a foreseeable event, the consequences would have been exactly the same had terrorists targeted the levees around New Orleans, with a lack of food, water, shelter and medical assistance as well as an evacuation plan, interoperable communication and a clear chain of command, he said.


Ervin said that the government is 'manifestly and woefully unprepared for a cyberattack.' From the government's classified intelligence, open-source intelligence, Al Qaeda is already aware of the country's vulnerabilities in cyberspace and how easy it would be to launch a cyberspace attack.


DHS, which was nominally to be in charge of the effort to prevent cyberattacks, has failed to make cybersecurity a priority, Ervin said. DHS' laxity about safeguarding its own information indicates how unprepared it is for leading the government as a whole and serving as an example to private industry and private citizenry, he said.


'Cybersecurity is a major, major issue, [but] it is yet to be fully comprehended and fully apprehended by the DHS, and until it does, we remain in mortal peril,' Ervin said.


Roseanne Gerin is a staff writer for Government Computer News' sister publication, Washington Technology.

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