WASHINGTON – From setting federal standards for driver’s licenses to requiring air passengers to pass through elaborate bomb-detection machines, the report of the Sept. 11 commission contains more than a dozen recommendations that would significantly affect the daily lives of ordinary people.
The measures – separate from the commission’s more publicized call for restructuring the intelligence community – could cost billions and spark strong debate as lawmakers hasten to respond to the panel’s scathing critique of U.S. security.
“What the commission is recommending would involve a vast injection of dollars, people and political support by the White House and Congress,” Paul Light, a New York University professor specializing in government bureaucracy, said this week. “This piece of the report is actually very detailed and aggressive.”
President Bush might soon adopt some of the security recommendations by executive order – possibly including a proposal that border and transportation security agencies develop a common strategy for screening travelers.
But the commission’s blueprint for homeland security could encroach on some liberties now taken for granted.
A spur-of-the-moment trip to Canada or Mexico without a passport might well become a thing of the past. “Americans should not be exempt from carrying … passports or otherwise enabling their identities to be securely verified when they enter the United States,” the report said.
Other recommendations – notably an overhaul of the formula for distributing federal homeland security grants to the states – carry a steep political price. The current formula, which is considered generous to rural areas at the expense of urban centers, would be replaced by one that allocates money based on likely threats and vulnerabilities.
Internal administration calculations show that under the new formula about half the states – those considered at low risk – would receive only token sums. States such as California would benefit.
Though the changes may not be easy, the commission said a better-organized and more extensive homeland security system would complement intelligence community reforms.
“Defenses cannot achieve perfect safety,” said the report. “They make targets harder to attack successfully, and they deter attacks by making capture more likely. Just increasing the attacker’s odds of failure may make the difference between a plan attempted, or a plan discarded.”
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is largely pleased with the commission’s proposals, his spokesman said. “Many of the recommendations codify the work that the department has been doing over the last 1 1/2 years,” said Brian Roehrkasse. “Many are also consistent with our top priorities.”
But where Homeland Security has been taking incremental steps to test new ideas, the commission is recommending a series of quick leaps.
Airport screening is one example. The commission recommended that the government “soon” screen passengers for explosives, especially those singled out for more intensive searches.
The possibility of explosives hidden on a person’s body now constitute an aviation security loophole. Checked luggage, carry-on articles and, in some cases, shoes are inspected for explosives, but a suicide bomber concealing a device under his clothing could theoretically get past the screeners and metal detectors.
The Transportation Security Administration has begun a pilot program to test a walk-through explosives detector at five airports, including San Diego International. Built by General Electric, the device looks like an elaborate metal detector and works by testing the air around a person for microscopic traces of explosives.
The government has not yet decided whether to install such detectors at 450 commercial airports. At $132,000 apiece, it would cost about $240 million to equip each of 1,800 security lanes at airports around the country. That estimate doesn’t include the cost of installation, maintenance and additional personnel to operate them.
The added level of security could also lead to longer lines. The process of checking for explosives takes about 14 seconds. In comparison, it takes a second or two for a person to step through a metal detector.
Congress and the administration are going to have to make some tough choices, said commission staff director Philip Zelikow.
“If you want to do a cost-benefit analysis, how much did the Sept. 11 attacks cost?” Zelikow asked. “They almost destroyed the American aviation industry. Put that alone against the cost of safety measures.”
The commission also called for a greater federal role in securing transit systems, railroads and other forms of transportation. “Over 90 percent of the nation’s $5.3 billion annual investment in the TSA goes to aviation – to fight the last war,” the report said
But its vision for protecting U.S. borders is even more sweeping. The panel called for a high-tech system that would use digital photographs, fingerprints or other such “biometric” information to positively identify people entering or leaving the country.
“No one can hide his or her debt by acquiring a credit card with a slightly different name,” the report said. “Yet today, a terrorist can defeat the link to electronic records by tossing away an old passport and slightly altering the name in the new one.”
Carrying out the recommendation would require the United States and other countries to develop new kinds of passports and the technology to read them. “It would take billions of dollars,” Zelikow said.
How a new border security system would apply to U.S. citizens entering the country could be a sticking point.
Homeland Security is phasing in a limited version of a biometric border security system, US-VISIT, which uses fingerprints and digital photos to check arriving foreign visitors against databases of terrorist suspects and criminal fugitives. Currently, the system is in place at airports and seaports, but not land crossings.
To safeguard identification documents, the commission called on the federal government to issue standards for birth certificates and driver’s licenses. While stopping short of endorsing a national identification card, the commission said all states and localities should use the same technical standards for issuing identification documents.
That would give security agencies some tactical advantages, Zelikow said. For example, if driver’s license photographs in all states were taken in the same way, that would make it easier for computers to analyze vast numbers of pictures to find people trying to conceal their true identities.
But it would also extend the reach of the federal government and raise questions about privacy rights. The commission said the government carries the burden of proof in instituting any measure that could erode civil liberties.