WASHINGTON – The government must focus on preventing airline hijackings and other terror threats that could inflict mass casualties, and is limited in the help it can give cities and states to protect trains and buses, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search) said Thursday.
His comments, in an Associated Press interview, drew criticism from Senate Democrats from metropolitan areas who said mass transit systems are highly vulnerable to terrorists — as shown in last week's simultaneous bombings of three subway lines and a bus in London.
At the same time, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe an attack on mass transit is inevitable, according to a new AP-Ipsos poll.
With finite resources and a looming range of threats, Chertoff said the federal government is forced to set priorities to prevent attacks that would produce the highest number of casualties. In the interview with AP reporters and editors, Chertoff noted that mass transit systems are largely regulated by state and local authorities that he said should provide the bulk of security measures.
By contrast, he said, the commercial aviation system is "almost exclusively a federal responsibility" and demands extensive funding.
"The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people," Chertoff said. "A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you're going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."
He added: "But it doesn't mean that we only focus on aviation. It means we do aviation, we do other things as well, but we scale our response based on the nature of the architecture."
The remarks touched off criticism among Democrats as the Senate approved, 96-1, a $31.8 billion Homeland Security Department spending measure for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. As part of the bill, senators rejected a plan to spend $1.16 billion on mass transit security measures, favoring instead a competing $100 million proposal. The bill now goes to a conference committee to resolve differences with the House version passed in May.
Sen. Charles Schumer (search), D-N.Y., later said Chertoff's statements "just make one's jaw drop" and demanded an apology.
"To say that the federal government has much less of a responsibility for mass transit systems because only 30 people might be killed on a subway bombing is one of the most appalling things that we've heard from any government official from any party in a very long time," Schumer said in an interview.
Confronted later in the day at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, Chertoff sought to clarify his remarks by saying the government has "an equal responsibility to protect Americans across the board."
Still, he said, "we have to be partners with everybody but we have to recognize there are differences in the way we apply our partnership."
The AP-Ipsos poll indicated that 57 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack on buses, trains or subways in the United States is inevitable, while just over a third said they think such an attack can be prevented.
Over a third of those polled, 37 percent, said they have at least some concern that a terrorist attack could harm them or a member of their family. But a majority, 62 percent, said they're not that concerned.
Meanwhile, the Senate rejected the $1.16 billion plan by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has long pushed for more money to pay for costly security upgrades in subways, buses and trains. For example, high-tech detection systems to sniff out explosives or nuclear, biological or chemicals weapons of mass destruction come with an estimated $6 billion price tag in the nation's 30 largest metropolitan areas.
His plan would have pushed the budget beyond its limits, said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who was overseeing the spending bill.
The wide-ranging bill would pay for the hiring of 1,000 more border patrol agents, provide nearly $1 billion for countermeasures to biological weapons and eliminate a White House proposal to raise ticket fees for airline passengers by $3 to help finance other security programs.
Chertoff touched on other issues during the 50-minute interview the day after he announced broad changes at his 2-year-old department.
While he is still considering changes to the national color-coded threat advisory system, Chertoff praised its ability to target specific areas, as with the mass transit system that currently stands at code orange, or high alert, because of the London attacks.
He also said the economic and social attitude in the United States, compared to some European nations, "tends to reduce the amount of frustration" that can lead to terror attacks.
On a personal note, he recounted a moment a few years ago, before he took his current job, when he felt sheepish about reporting a suspicious package.
As it turned out, the package was not a threat, Chertoff said, But the instance highlighted in his mind how important it is for the public to keep a watchful eye — even if the hunch turns out to be wrong.
"I remember it crossed my mind, I said, 'Boy, am I overreacting?"' Chertoff said. "So I understand that personal dynamic. We have to repeatedly remind people not to be sheepish or embarrassed about taking those steps."