TSA Still Sorting Out Its Role in Surface Transportation Security

TSA Still Sorting Out Its Role in Surface Transportation Security
By Caitlin Webber, CQ Staff
The Transportation Security Administration’s uncertain role in securing surface transportation might be leaving some modes vulnerable, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The five-year-old TSA is still working out the kinks with the Transportation Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other stakeholders to determine what position it plays in non-aviation security. The administration had previously devoted the bulk of its resources to air safety, but recent attacks on European mass transit systems have elevated the threat of terrorism to land transport.

“TSA’s efforts to develop security standards for surface transportation modes have been limited to passenger and freight rail,” Cathleen A. Berrick, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO, said at a House Homeland Security panel hearing Tuesday. “TSA has not determined what its regulatory role will be with respect to commercial vehicles or highway infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that aviation is still a premium target for terrorists, Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said, “I believe that our focus has disproportionately been on protecting aircraft from past attack scenarios . . . We must also not lose sight of the need for a robust surface transportation security system.”

In its report submitted to the Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection Subcommittee, the GAO says that while TSA had completed threat assessments for mass transit and passenger and freight rail, “its efforts related to commercial vehicles and highway infrastructure are in the early stages.”

Also according to the GAO, in fiscal 2007 TSA completed 113 security reviews on trucking companies, state departments of transportation and bus companies, but there is “no plan or time frame for conducting these reviews on a nationwide basis.”

Although titled “Moving Beyond the First Five Years: How [TSA] Will Continue to Enhance Security for All Modes of Transportation,” TSA Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley was largely mum on surface transportation at the Tuesday hearing.

In his testimony submitted for the record however, Hawley said, “Strong partnerships have proven to be critical as we expand our presence in modes of surface transportation security.

“We work closely with stakeholders in these industries, putting an emphasis on sharing intelligence, capacity, and technology with that of other law enforcement, intelligence or other agencies at every level of government.”

A 2007 law (PL 110-53) implementing some remaining Sept. 11 commission recommendations requires the TSA work with rail and transit systems to develop comprehensive risk assessments and security plans. The GAO is now asking how the new requirements will be met “since the agency has not requested funding for additional surface transportation security inspectors” for fiscal 2009. The number of surface transportation inspectors has held steady at 100 since 2005.

“Now is past time for TSA to devote considerably more resources, personnel and attention to securing other modes of travel, especially mass transit,” Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of DHS and current director of the homeland security program at the Aspen Institute, said Tuesday.

Ervin praised the efforts of some major cities to enhance surface transportation security with additional surveillance, police and bomb detection technology, but warned that the economic downturn could threaten these “extraordinarily costly” measures.

“The federal government has an obligation to help at least the highest-risk cities shoulder the burden of these costs,” Ervin said, “because these are the cities that are likeliest to be targeted by terrorists and an attack on any one of them would be an attack on the nation as a whole.”

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