WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) was slammed by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle Tuesday for not doing enough to protect the nation's airports and airlines.
Most of the complaints were directed at the Transportation Security Administration (search), one of the 22 federal agencies absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security (search) after it was created almost four months ago.
During his first appearance before the new House committee that oversees his agency, Ridge was criticized by Republicans and Democrats who said that almost two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that used commercial airliners as monstrous deadly weapons, U.S. transportation security is still vulnerable to terrorists.
But Ridge said that despite his agency still being in its infancy, "I believe we have made a great deal of progress in this enormous undertaking."
Among other things, DHS has launched Operation Liberty Shield, to prepare and protect the United States, including ports and critical infrastructure, during a heightened terror alert, and has completed TOPOFF II, an extensive terrorist response exercise.
DHS also recently announced the US VISIT system, which will use biometrics to track the movements of visitors at the nation's airports and seaports by the end of the year. It also expedited the distribution of nearly $4 billion dollars in grant money to states and localities for homeland security needs.
"We also began to engage the Congress to make sure that we put a grant system into place that maximizes every federal security dollar," Ridge said.
But apparently that just isn't good enough.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Homeland Security Department, asked why the TSA hired some airport security screeners with criminal records.
Recent reports indicate that in order to meet the November 2002 employee deadline, TSA hired many screeners without completing a full background investigation.
"It certainly raises very serious questions about the hiring practices of TSA's screener work force," Rogers said.
Ridge said TSA, in its rush to meet a congressional deadline to replace the private airport screeners with an all-federal work force by last Nov. 19, used private companies to do the background checks. He said the federal government was now doing its own checks.
To further address this issue, Rogers said that he will hold a hearing Thursday to probe the hiring snafus.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., complained that passenger airlines were still carrying cargo that had not been checked for explosives.
The Associated Press reported last July that cargo was not getting the same scrutiny as passengers or luggage. Congress, which set deadlines for screening passengers and their luggage, has not done the same for cargo.
"If we can't give people confidence that the cargo is being screened, you're leaving a tremendous hole in the system," Markey said.
Air cargo has been a significant source of income for financially stressed airlines, accounting for 12 percent to 15 percent of their revenue, according to the Air Transport Association, the major carriers' trade group. Carrying cargo was worth $13 billion to the airlines in 2001, the last year for which figures are available.
Markey suggested that White House efforts to cut taxes for wealthy Americans was siphoning money that could otherwise be spent on equipment to make sure bombs were not loaded aboard passenger airplanes.
"You won't have the funding if the tax cut goes through," Markey said. "The security of the American people should be first."
But Ridge argued that money wasn't an issue. He promised to report to the Hill within two weeks on how the department planned to set up a system to screen cargo. He said some of the 6,000 screeners slated to lose their jobs because of overstaffed airports could instead search cargo.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said the problem was so serious that deadly attacks could occur any day. "The secretary of transportation could wake up in the morning and find that six planes were blown out of the sky," he said.
And Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., complained that hundreds of thousands of airport employees, such as those who work at restaurants, didn't go through enough security checkpoints on their way to their jobs.
Ridge said identification cards are being issued to transportation workers that, now being developed, would go to employees who underwent thorough background checks.
Ridge was testifying before Congress to garner support for President Bush's $36.2 billion budget request for DHS programs that involve 18,000 federal employees. That request is an 18.3 percent increase over the fiscal 2003 funding levels.
"It helps meet our needs in every phase of homeland security, from border and transportation security to infrastructure protection to emergency response and recovery," Ridge said. "It also engages the academic and scientific community and private sector to find solutions to these challenges."
After the hearing, Ridge left for a meeting at the White House with Bush's Homeland Security Council. That group later decided to raise the nation's terror alert status from yellow, or "elevated," to orange, or "high," based on recent Al Qaeda-linked terror attacks overseas and other intelligence information.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.