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Homeland security: sticky web

"When spider webs unite, they can tie up the lion."

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | December 10, 2002

"We are building the TSA so it will serve as the core of the Homeland Security Department."

—Admiral James Loy

Admiral James Loy likes to use an Ethiopian proverb when he talks about his vision of the Department of Homeland Security: "When spider webs unite, they can tie up the lion."

As a leader in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- which will be the single largest entity in the new mammoth federal department -- Loy's vision is likely to color whatever form homeland security finally assumes.

Loy likes to picture Americans at all levels involved in homeland security -- from employees of the 22 government agencies that will make up the new department to faith-based volunteers.

For now Loy's vision is being funded with a budget that calls to mind the fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes." The money, although presumably being imagined by Congress, simply isn't there. It hasn't yet been appropriated.

But if anyone is used to operating this way, it's Loy. When President Bush created the TSA in November 2001 -- one month after the terrorist attacks -- Loy helped whip up a bona fide federal agency from scratch.

Speaking before a group of information technology contractors involved in homeland security, he recalled when the TSA operated with bare bones equipment. "I remember when TSA employees shared telephones, got paid with handwritten checks, and brought in office supplies from home," he said.

TSA's most visible recent role was in meeting the Nov. 19 deadline for federalizing passenger screening at airports. The next big deadline: New Year's Eve, when the federal agency will screen all checked baggage at airports for explosives.

At times the brunt of criticisms about airport delays and racial profiling, the TSA nevertheless has met its mandated deadlines, Loy mused, and in the process, "thousands of ideas, processes and products were sifted through."

Now the TSA has well over 50,000 employees. It's the heart of homeland security and will likely be the pocketbook, too.

"We are building the TSA so it will serve as the core of the Homeland Security Department. It will be its single largest entity," said Loy.

Then he launches his vision again: "The Department of Homeland Security will bridge the information gap that has stymied national security so far."

Bluntly facing criticism that such a large federal merger will inevitably result in bureaucratic delays and malfunctions, he acknowledged that there's more to creating the new department than meets even his practiced eye.

"There is more to contend with here than the integration of e-mail addresses. Dozens of information technology systems will be linked together. There will be administrative, technological, and cultural challenges to overcome day after day after day."

But he always ends with his vision. "In the end there will be a culture of cooperation."

And in the beginning, the history of homeland security didn't start with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

For Loy and his colleagues, the challenge began 10 to 12 years before the attacks, when the U.S. had "backed away from a focus on what was truly going on around us," he said. "The complacency kicked in."

In February 2001 the Senate issued a report on national security called "Imperative to Change." The report said a direct attack against the U.S. was likely to happen in the next quarter century.

"I remember a senator saying to me that they printed 100,000 of them - and 99,800 were stored in a warehouse," Loy said.

"We had a harsh awakening on 9/11/2001."

Now it's time to understand a completely new security environment, he explained. "All of us have to adapt constantly to the changing scene of world events. We can all probably trace changes in our lives back to that day. How often have we wished desperately to erase that morning?

"We need to be identifying consciously the high-vulnerability areas. We'd better figure out the most important things to do."

But as one representative from Computer Sciences Corporation bluntly asked: we do this using what money? "Our good Congress didn't do much in the appropriations arena," said CSC spokesperson. "What's happening here is planning without budgetary guidance."

Loy first chose a diplomatic answer: "I agree that an understanding of the requirements should be accompanied by a willingness to get the job done. I think you'll see this Congress return and come back and deal aggressively with appropriations for FY '03."

Then Loy described what was really going on: "I am having a meeting every Thursday to figure out which contractors to steal from this week in order to pay other contractors. It's a very, very difficult challenge. These are very difficult days and weeks for us at TSA."

With a bankruptcy announcement by United Airlines Monday morning, these are difficult budgetary days for many entities.

While acknowledging he's operating on a seat-of-the-pants budget, Loy nonetheless is confident the New Year's Eve deadline will be met. Starting that night, checked luggage will be screened, he said, at airports nationwide. "There may be some delays. But there is no acceptable alternative for the realities they represent."

As for future airport security, Loy envisions a national identification system. "Passengers would voluntarily sign up for background checks and those travelers would be able to clear security more quickly," he said.

Also among TSA's strategies: A transportation identification program that combines personal information and biometrics to identify transportation employees - from pilots to custodians - who have access to secure areas.

Information on transportation employees would be linked to a central database that may serve as an international standard. "Right now some truck drivers have to carry 23 credentials to truck bananas," Loy said.

Although TSA's initial concentration was on aviation security, "our responsibility isn't just about aviation," he added. "Now we're focusing more intently on coastlines, railway systems, new approaches to threat mitigation. We're looking at better, stronger, faster screening equipment.

"Our security system today is simply not good enough for tomorrow. Homeland security is the hottest topic on the minds of government and industry alike around the world. It will mold our national agenda. There is no more important work to be done."

Loy issued a request to Americans at every level. "Please challenge us and show us what we can do better. We're trying to secure America for our children and grandchildren. We need all the help we can get."

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