Blogs > Cliopatria > Chertoff

Jul 14, 2005 7:12 pm


By and large, I think Michael Chertoff has done a good job as Homeland Security Secretary. (Of course, following Tom Ridge, it would have been hard to have done worse.) But today he made some astonishing comments about the federal response to the War on Terror.

According to the AP, Chertoff argued that while the federal government would handle airline security, improving security against terrorism on the nation's mass transit systems is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments."The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. 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."

Chertoff was grilled on the issue at a hearing today (transcript isn't yet available) by Chuck Schumer and Joe Lieberman, and backtracked slightly, commenting,"We have an equal responsibility to protect Americans across the board. We have to be partners with everybody but we have to recognize there are differences in the way we apply our partnership."

Obviously, areas of the country with mass transit systems tend not to vote strongly Republican. But national security is a federal, not a state or local issue, and Chertoff of all people should know this--it's the reason his cabinet department exists. Coming off a (pre-7/7) vote by the Senate Apprpriations Committee to reduce the money the federal government spends on mass transit security, Chertoff's comments raise grave doubts about the federal government's commitment to this aspect of the war on terror.

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/15/2005

Speaking as a member of the public, I honestly don't care where the money comes from, and politicians of any party who spend time bickering about who pays instead of talking about what they can do are going to find me decidedly unsympathetic at the voting booth. Terrorism is, as the creation of the DHS demonstrates, a federal issue. Safety on buses and trains is, as it has always been, a local issue with some federal ramifications and regulation. In other words, both of them have a responsibility to contribute to the safety of mass transit as much as to the safety of any other vital infrastructure or activity.

Everyone keeps saying "it's not partisan" but honestly I don't see a lot of non-partisan movement going on here.

Robert KC Johnson - 7/15/2005

As I understand Chertoff's remarks, though (am waiting to see the transcript of the hearing tomorrow), his claim was that states and localities need not only be in charge of the security for local mass transit (I agree with Jon, perfectly appropriate given federalist principles), but that states and localities would need to fork over the $$ to pay for this security. As the terror threat is a national security issue, it seems to me that the money has to come from the federal government.

Politically, of course, this is difficult for the GOP, because spending federal dollars on mass transit security amounts to GOP_leaning areas of the country subsidizing Dem'c ones.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/14/2005

Seems to me that Chertoff was ham-handed with his rationale, but that his sense of distributed responsibility is reasonable. It's not the scale of death that makes airlines federal: it's the distributed, interstate, national scope of airline travel that requires centralized security. While techniques for mass transport security may be consistent, responsibility for protecting mass transit systems can be delegated to smaller districts; in fact, many mass transit systems have their own security forces, which can be specifically trained to monitor and protect against terrorism, with the assistance of intelligence gathered at national and international levels.

If the federal government nationalized all mass transit system security, I think that would be more troubling than the -- wrongheaded, but that's another discussion -- focus on massive attacks instead of smaller atrocities.

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