Homeland Security: We Could Breathe Easier

Richard A. Falkenrath
Richard A. Falkenrath Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

March 29, 2005

The basic strategy al Qaeda used on Sept. 11, 2001, was to strike a common, poorly secured commercial system in a way that would cause catastrophic secondary effects. The terrorists did a better job of identifying the vulnerability associated with fully fueled commercial airliners than the government did—and they exploited this vulnerability to terrible effect. Now, because of the work of the Transportation Security Administration, commercial aircraft in the United States are all but impossible to hijack.

But the terrorist is an adaptive enemy. One central question in homeland security is whether terrorists will again locate a catastrophic civilian vulnerability before the government gets around to addressing it.

There are an infinite number of potential targets in America that, if attacked, could result in hundreds of civilian casualties. The number of potential targets that could result in thousands of civilian casualties is, however, finite and knowable. In the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for identifying these potentially catastrophic targets, analyzing their security schemes and taking action if the security arrangements are deficient.

It is in general a bad idea to call attention to America’s most serious civilian vulnerabilities. Government officials should never do so and should not be asked to. Private citizens should do so with care, and only when the government fails to act.

Of the all the various remaining civilian vulnerabilities, one stands alone as uniquely deadly, pervasive and susceptible to terrorist attack: industrial chemicals that are toxic when inhaled, such as chlorine, ammonia, phosgene, methyl bromide, and hydrochloric and various other acids. These chemicals, several of which are identical to those used as weapons on the Western Front during World War I, are routinely shipped through and stored near population centers in vast quantities, in many cases with no security whatsoever.

A cleverly designed terrorist attack against such a chemical target would be no more difficult to perpetrate than were the Sept. 11 attacks. The loss of life could easily equal that which occurred on Sept. 11—and might even exceed it. I am aware of no other category of potential terrorist targets that presents as great a danger as toxic industrial chemicals.

The federal government has the authority to regulate the security of chemicals as they are being transported on roads, railways and waterways. With only one minor exception, the administration has not exercised this authority in any substantial way since Sept. 11. There has been no meaningful improvement in the security of these chemicals moving through our population centers.

In a desperate step, the D.C. council recently voted to ban hazardous material shipments through downtown Washington. This ordinance is clearly good for Washington, but it is bad for the other parts of the country that will absorb the diverted chemical loads. Furthermore, its economic burden falls principally on CSX Corp., the company that owns the two rail lines through downtown Washington. CSX is suing to block implementation of the ordinance. The federal government is supporting CSX’s effort, an awkward position for a security-conscious administration that has so far failed to mandate a systematic, nationwide reduction in the vulnerability of this sector.

The administration can and should act immediately to enhance the security of toxic chemicals in transit nationwide; no new legislation is required. Specifically, the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation should promulgate regulations that will, over time, require chemical shippers to track the movement of all hazardous chemicals electronically; to report this data to DHS in real time; to use fingerprint-based access controls for all chemical conveyances; to adopt container signs that do not reveal the contents to most observers; to perform rigorous background checks on all employees; to strengthen the physical resilience of chemical containers; to reduce chemical loads; to ship decoy containers alongside filled containers; and to install perimeter security at loading and switching stations. Violators should suffer harsh civil and criminal penalties.

But the federal government does not have authority to regulate the security measures inside chemical plants and storage facilities. President Bush has twice called on Congress to pass legislation granting the Department of Homeland Security this authority. The 108th Congress declined to do so. It is often alleged—incorrectly—that lobbying by the chemical industry was behind Congress’s inaction. The real reasons had to do with the full agendas of the committees involved; the administration’s competing legislative priorities; and the obscure, esoteric and theoretical nature of the issue.

The voluntary security enhancements many of the larger chemical firms have implemented—in some cases with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security—are a step in the right direction but are insufficient. Congress should promptly grant powerful authority to regulate chemical-plant security to that department as the president has requested.

There is no silver bullet to improving the security of chemicals that are toxic when inhaled. A layered, nationwide approach is required. It is right and proper for the government to require industries to take on the security costs of their activities. The immediate cost of these regulations would be borne by the chemical industry. Over time, costs would be passed on to consumers, and the market would adjust to a new, more socially responsible equilibrium. The real losers would be al Qaeda and its successors.