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Throwing Caution to a Very Ill Wind

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“Idon’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would… try to use an airplane as a missile…” Condoleezza Rice, 2002 Press Briefing

“… that was always one of the considerations in the planning. And resources were actually designated to deal with that particular threat.” Former FBI Louis Freeh Director (1993-2001), Testimony to 9/11 Commission 2004

“… I do not remember any reports to us, a kind of strategic warning, that planes might be used as weapons.” Condoleezza Rice, Testimony to 9/11 Commission 2004

“So it was well-known in the intelligence community that one of the potential areas or devices to be used by terrorists, which they had discussed, according to our intelligence information, was the use of airplanes, either packed with explosives or otherwise, in suicide missions?” 9/11 Commissioner Ben-Veniste

“… that’s correct.” Director Freeh

Good comedy. Too bad it had to be set against the backdrop of a tragedy.

So what was learned from 9/11? Not much it seems. George Bush and Ms. Rice, whose aspirations were/are to become commissioners of baseball and the NFL, respectively, seem to have forgotten the old adage that a strong offense may be showy and a crowd pleaser but championships are won with a good, solid defense backing up the “show”.

That’s particularly puzzling since George Bush is fond of saying, “The most solemn duty of the American President is to protect the American people.” He also likes to point out that he “wake(s) up every morning, thinking about how to better protect our country.”

If Ms. Rice’s 9/11 testimony that, “To inflict devastation on a massive scale, the terrorists only have to succeed once, and we know they are trying every day” is added to the mix then one may have hoped that the “thinking” process involved listening to threat scenarios from different sources, all of which agree that we are vulnerable, and then “protecting the American people” by doing something about it. Unfortunately, the Administration’s track record proves that hope misguided.

Immediately after 9/11, a number of Congressional committees, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the GAO (Government Accountability Office), and private think- tanks initiated a series of reviews on the status of safety at chemical plants. That effort resulted in their issuing warnings about the dangers inherent in lacking a specific set of guidelines to deal with terrorist threats. The GAO saw so many gaps in the way the government dealt with the issue of safety and terrorism that it reported, “To date, no one has comprehensively assessed the security of chemical facilities against terrorist attack.”

Attempting to identify potential targets, the EPA listed 123 (since revised to 110) chemical plants that, if subject to terrorist attack, could release gasses that can kill or injure over 1,000,000 people. Another 700 plants were identified where the human toll would be more than 100,000. 3,000 facilities were found that threaten 10,000 people each, and the Army Surgeon General determined that as many as “2.4 million people could be killed or injured in an attack on a toxic chemical plant in a densely populated area.”

A sufficiently alarmed Senate Committee, approximately 2 months after 9/11, passed a bill that required chemical plants to take pro-active steps to ensure that the public was protected in the event of terrorist attack(s).

So, how has the Administration responded to the warnings from security experts, the Senate committee’s bill, and various, ominous reports by the EPA and the GAO over the course of time since 9/11?

The Administration, and its allies in Congress, opposed the Senate bill which, as a result, ended up falling by the wayside. It opposed other efforts at securing the plants through government regulation. It also administered a death-blow to regulation by removing the EPA from enforcement and “replacing” it with Homeland Security.

“Replacing” is in quotes for a reason. The EPA was the only federal agency with expertise in, and some enforcement powers over, chemical plant safety. Homeland Security didn’t, and still doesn’t, have any of the enforcement powers of the EPA nor does it have any additional authority to require the chemical industry to adopt strict(er) security measures.

The result is that the Administration essentially took pro-active steps that actually weakened security. Since that seems to defy common sense, one might be inclined to question the rationale behind such moves.

A glimpse into the Administration’s thinking can be gleaned from the following statement by then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s top aide, Mr. Al Martinez-Fonts, a former executive of JPMorgan Chase:

“I was in the private sector all my life… did I like it when the government came in and stepped in and told [us] to do certain things? The answer’s no… I think we’re trying to avoid that.”

He didn’t “like” government intrusion so “We’re trying to avoid that”? One can only wonder why people such as this- those who abhor government stepping in and telling them “certain things”- didn’t raise their voices against the Patriot Act, random searches, body searches at airports, and the scaling back of our Constitutional rights.

But the Administration has little interest in the Constitution or, for that matter, with safety. Its interests rest with business. The laissez-faire attitude expressed above was, and is, symptomatic of some of the ideologues in charge of our safety. However, ideology rarely ensures large campaign contributions which is why it’s just a small part of the answer as to why the Administration hasn’t taken the necessary steps to secure chemical facilities.

When the Administration made its EPA/Homeland Security decision, despite objections from experts in the field, it pointed to the fact that the chemical industry volunteered to monitor itself and to set up its own safety programs. It also ignored criticisms that it was acting at the behest of the chemical industry which had complained about the cost of federally mandated guidelines to determine compliance.

A closer look at the relationship between the chemical industry and the Administration and its allies shows just how much value is placed on industry dollars as opposed to safety. It might also point out that George Bush’s statement regarding what he thinks about every morning should be changed to, “I wake up every morning, get a briefing from our top contributors, and begin thinking about how to better protect our country as long as whatever steps we take don’t interfere with the profits of those contributors.”

The chemical industry used its clout and contributions, dating back to 1998, wisely as it spread $22 million dollars to certain “players” in Congress and George Bush. That amount obviously spoke loudly. At least much more loudly than a typical American family, town or city ever could.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a lobbying organization that works on behalf of the chemical industry, spent $4.3 million in 2002 (House election year)and 2003 on in-house lobbyists, ensuring that its message opposing strong, mandatory chemical security regulations was clearly heard on Capitol Hill as well as within the Administration.

Then- EPA administrator Christie Whitman, who resigned from her position in 2003, noted in a book she wrote that chemical industry lobbyists and some Republican lawmakers blocked her and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s efforts to obtain new and effective regulatory authority to secure chemical plants.

To understand why private self-regulation has no place in dealing with public safety, one must understand the implications of the industry’s own Conference Board statement that, “The perceived need to upgrade corporate security has clashed with the perceived need to control expenses…”.

The GAO looked into the voluntary security plans and concluded that, indeed, the industry was using a profit analysis when it came to safety evaluation and implementation.

Sal DePasquale, who helped draw up the ACC’s voluntary security plan said, “Refusing to issue prescriptive standards essentially means the industry association is simply creating a smoke-and-mirrors exercise to make it appear that it is issuing bona fide standards. It is not.”

A few of the results of industry self-regulation are a lack of requirements for background checks on guards, no efforts to minimize the dangerous chemicals stored on site, and no efforts to repair holes in fences at the facilities. To ensure that the industry is not held to account for its failures, each facility gets to choose the person who verifies that it has actually carried out a security plan.

It now appears that certain members of Congress have had enough. One example of a slight flexing of Congressional muscle was evidenced by a Senate hearing held on April 27, 2005 where testimony was given before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Richard Falkenrath, who resigned from his position as Homeland Security adviser to George Bush in May 2004, speaking on chemical facility safety told the Committee, “I am aware of no other category of potential terrorist targets that presents as great a danger as TIH industrial chemicals.” He went on to say, “… there [has] been no significant reduction in the inherent vulnerability of the most dangerous… chemical facilities and conveyances to terrorist attack since September 11, 2001.”

He, now free from the Administration, is urging Congress to require, among many other security related actions, the Homeland Security Department to maintain an inventory of chemical plants, to develop safety standards, to verify that plants have met those requirements and to impose civil and criminal penalties on those that don’t.

He was joined in his testimony by Carolyn Merritt, Chairwoman and CEO of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board- a unit that probes deadly accidents. She stated that there are “… serious gaps in the preparations for major chemical releases by companies, emergency responders, government authorities and the public.”

A number of Democrats, led by Jon Corzine, D-N.J. have been pushing for strong, government mandated security regulations. They have been joined by responsible members of the GOP who are unwilling to hide their heads in the sand as the vulnerability remains unattended.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, has spoken on this subject at many forums. In one instance she pointed out that many plants are in heavily-populated urban areas and:

“… have little more to secure them than a fence around the perimeter… Chemical facilities are attractive both as a source of chemicals that could be stolen to build bombs, and for the release of toxic fumes into the surrounding communities…”

She has also directly addressed a slight shift in the Administration’s position opposing federal legislation. Senator Collins noted, “For the first time the Administration is stating clearly before Congress that current laws are not adequate to the task of improving security of chemical plants. Federal legislation is needed.” However, she still seemed to maintain a bit of skepticism as to the Administration’s recent “conversion” by highlighting the fact that the Administration did not provide details on what new authority is needed, and she warned that “…the devil truly will be in the details.”

It should be noted that the slight shift in position by the Administration did not take place in a vacuum or because of a sudden interest in public safety. It is more a reflection of a shift in the position of the chemical industry.

For that, one can thank individual states. As it became clear that federal action was not forthcoming, some states began to plan for their own chemical plant security laws. That approach would create an expensive, uncoordinated web of regulations and, as a result, the chemical industry has become more open to listening to proposals for one uniform set of federal regulations.

Those who prefer comedy to serious discussion about the proper role of government in ensuring citizen safety should relax. The Administration has that base covered. Consider the response Mr. Al “laissez-faire” Martinez-Fonts gave when he was asked in March 2004 (three years after 9/11 and with all the chemical plant warnings documented) about why the government had not acted on regulating security at chemical plants:

“… It was not chemical plants that were blown up…” (on 9/11).

Condoleezza Rice better watch out. There are plenty of comedians ready to replace her in this Administration.

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  • gonzo marx

    well done!!


    read this one carefully, kiddies..there’s a lot fo good stuff here

    this is NOT a partisan Issue..it is about the REAL security of our citizens

    which is being determined by cost analysis rather than actual security concerns

    am i the only one that is bothered by this?

    Bog knows i have raised this very Issue many times over the last months, good to see it put out here in a single Article


  • Nancy

    No, you’re not. but aside from the population rising up & gunning down the entire spectrum of miscreants from corporations to white house, I don’t see what can be done about it. Impeachment I doubt will be possible, because the GOP has the upper hand & won’t allow it, even with all the proof of malfeasance, conflict of interest, corruption, & outright treachery that is available. Besides, all this shit encompasses both parties & all politicians & their bribers.

  • Bennett

    You are not the only one, gonzo.

    This is truly a must read piece for all.

    Remember folks, not all of us will be lucky enough to be “up wind” when the chemical shit hits the fan.

    A small note to your reps may be in order over this issue.

  • Nancy

    Ironically – and typically – the primo chickenshits of our big, brave congress ARE very much concerned because chemical trains pass within 4 MILES of the capitol thru DC all the time! They don’t care if NY or LA go up in smoke, but when it comes to protecting their sorry asses, they are the best & the first. You should have heard them squeal with indignation & horror when it was revealed that they, too were drinking tainted water from the DC water supply. Of course, it wasn’t an issue as long as only the general population were affected ….

  • Robert

    First of all you have it wrong when you state that Mr. Martinez-Fonts was Tom Ridge’s top aide. He was a special assistant to the secretary. A top aide may have been the Deputy Secretary, Chief of Staff, maybe even an Undersecretary. But I digress. The problem I have with your article is the last couple of paragraphs. If you have a block of cheese in your fridge that grows mold, do you try to prevent the milk from curdling? No, you focus on the problem with the cheese. The department is new, and their top priority upon creation, and what makes me feel safe when I fly is that they have fixed the airport problem. Chemical plants are considered “critical infrastucture” and have been since the Dept was created therefore they have special security measures in place. I believe that your time would be better spent checking facts, or using tact when making suggestions. Of course it is much easier to jump on the anti-GOP bandwagon, and believing that the entire administration is pure evil. Know who else uses one sided propaganda to recruit people to hate others? Terrorists.

    Please move to Canada.

  • Robert:

    Thank you for pointing out that “special assistant” is not the equivalent of “top aide”. I am working on bringing your concern to the attention of every source which has, is, or may be thinking of referring to him as “top aide”.

    I’m glad you feel safe flying again. I really am. As an aside, you may not want to look into the fact that you can simply get your boarding pass over the internet – essentially circumventing the i.d. process. (see:”A Dangerous Loophole in Airport Security” -If Slate could discover it, the terrorists will too.- By Andy Bowers).

    Should a statement like, “air cargo on passenger planes is rarely physically inspected today”, shake your safety meter, then you probably want to stay away from, “Terminal Futility”- Routine airport security won’t thwart jihadists, but it does inconvenience and endanger the rest of us.”- By Christopher Hitchens.

    If you don’t like to read about confidential reports by the Department of Homeland Security that deal with the need for some easy repairs to serious weaknesses in airport security, you might want to avoid the New york Times article, “Report Presses Easy Ways To Fix Airline Security”.- By Eric Lipton.

    That’s a lot of reading Not to do.

    I was a little confused as to the block of cheese/curdling milk reference, but thanks to you, I’ve taken the precaution of placing the cheese and milk I had in the refrigerator into non-leak bags and taking them to a hazardous waste disposal site. I also vow never to buy those items again so I can avoid having to concentrate on either one.

    Your point on chemical plants being “critical infrastructures” and having been designated such “since the Dept was created therefore they have special security measures in place” is interesting. Sorry, I didn’t mean that. What I meant was that it looks like and sounds like a 22-word pile-up on the freeway of thoughts.

    To begin, as anyone as studious as yourself should know, the term, by its very nature, lends itself to chagine as technology progresses. For instance, 20 years ago, our access to the internet would probably not fall onto the list but certainly should today under various ubbrellas (banking, finance, gov’t, etc).

    One thing is clear, things that can kill a lot of people, like chemical plants, should be on the list- and are. The “special security measures” is where you are mistaken. The industry is self-regulated and offers its own security- said security costs falling within the industry’s profit calculation. Please note, that your love of airport security was not left up to individual airlines. Imagine, even with its flaws today, where it would be considering the ill financial health of the airline industry as a whole.

    Basically “critical infrastructure” is defined as follows:

    “. . . those systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.”

    Key Assets are defined as:

    ” . . . individual targets whose destruction would not endanger vital systems, but could create local disaster or profoundly damage our Nation�s morale or confidence. Key assets include symbols or historical attractions, such as prominent national, state, or local monuments and icons. In some cases, these include quasi-public symbol that are identified strongly with the United States as a Nation, and fall completely under the jurisdiction of state and local officials or even private foundations. Key assets also include individual or localized facilities that deserve special protection because of their destructive potential or their value to the local community.”

    Examples of (in no particular order of priority) “critical infrastructure” include, but are not limited to:

    Agriculture, Food, Water, Public Health, Emergency Services, Government, Defense Industrial Base, Chemical Industry, Information and telecommunications, Energy, Transportation, Banking and Finance, Postal and Shipping.

    When one includes the above-mentioned “national, state, and local, monuments and icons” to the list it is easy to see that the designation, while important, is not as important as a common sense approach to isolating the greatest threats and immediately securing them (i.e. chemical plants).

    To reiterate, the term or category something is paced into, is not as important as what is done about securing it. For instance, I have no doubt that you would agree that much more government action is required to ensure security at a chemical plant which could adversely affect the lives of hundreds of thousands to millions of people than is necessary to protect mount Rushmore (until a likeness of George Bush is placed on it of course).

    In conclusion, I will definitely take your suggestions to heart and ensure that I adhere to the same fact-checking standards as you do but mostly, I will make a point of using tact when making suggestions. I also promise to refrain from jumping on (and off) bandwagons.

    I will admit, that I have never heard of 2 sided propaganda and was unaware (until you pointed it out) that referring to government hearings, quotes from Administration officials and ex-officials, and Republican Senators fell under “being anti- GOP”. Oh well, live and learn. As for what you are apparently attempting to equate me to and your polite request for my moving to our northern neighbor, I’m pretty sure that somehow the letters got mixed up and moved around in your e- mail transmission because, I find it hard to believe that someone as so well versed in debate as yourself would say anything like that.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and all the best to you and yours.