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Press Conference with Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ): DHS and Better National Security Priorities

Interview

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Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. BIDEN: Folks, one of the things that the conference you just witnessed has allowed us to do is focus this port issue, has allowed us to for the first time, I believe, in four years to go back and really focus on the whole motion of homeland security, and whether we have a homeland security policy.

Three years ago today, the Homeland Security Department opens its doors over the objection initially of the administration, and in a speech to its employees during that week, the president of the United States said, and I quote, "Our enemies can strike anywhere in America, and we must be ready to respond in a coordinated way."

And the message, though, from the 9/11 commission three years later -- almost three years later, December 5th of this past year -- the 9/11 commission working on its own nickel now, actually, continuing because they're so concerned about the failure to implement their recommendations was that -- if you take a look at this chart which is awfully busy -- but the bottom line of the chart is: the administration has received failing grades, Ds, and Fs, and Incompletes on each of the areas that the 9/11 commission has looked at in terms of necessary -- necessary emphasis in order to protect the American homeland.

And it's time to start -- stop talking about setting priorities in this administration and actually set them.

Now, again, I want to read from one piece of the 9/11 Commission Report. December 5th, 2005, Final Report, 9/11 Commission Recommendations. This is the most devastating one, and I believe.

This is what we're going to sort of talk about here.

Since critical infrastructure risk and vulnerability assessments -- and I'm quoting -- "a draft national infrastructure plan, November 2 '05, spells out the methodology and the process for critical infrastructure assessments." Then it goes on to say, "No risk and vulnerability assessments are actually made. No" -- emphasize -- "NO national priority set" -- or, excuse me, "established. No recommendations made for the allocation of scarce resources." No. The operative word is "no" -- none. None. Three years into the existence of this agency.

And the focus on the ports, although extremely important, and the ownership, or the management of a port has allowed us the ability to go back and try to re-awaken the sensibilities of the United States Congress as to what -- how vulnerable we remain. The administration basically said -- and you heard from our colleague from New Jersey earlier, just 10 minutes ago -- "Trust us on the idea that the UAE can manage these ports." He got a loud and resounding response from Democrats and Republicans, from the American public: no, Mr. President, we do not trust the judgment of your administration to take care of guarding the homeland. And folks, let me just raise three points, and then I'm going to turn it over to my colleagues.

First, homeland security relates to domestic law enforcement. If there's going to be somebody getting -- catching someone putting sarin gas into the air conditioning unit at one of the great convention centers, it's going to be a cop coming from the Dunkin' Donuts going behind the facility, seeing someone climbing out of a dumpster. It's not going to be somebody in night vision goggles that's a Special Forces person. And what has this administration done? It has put -- it has, in fact, eliminated the COPS program. It has cut $2 billion over the last two years in terms of aid to local law enforcement. Thirty-four of the largest police agencies in the nation are reducing their police forces because of the elimination of the COPS program.

First responders. You saw what happened again in 9/11 -- not only 9/11, where you saw again down in Katrina. And you heard the administration's spokesperson talking about the study they did on the Sunday programs, saying two things: you need coordination and the ability to communicate. Guess what? We still can't communicate. There's still an inability to do that. Why? Because, quite frankly, the overwhelming pressure of some of the very agencies you all work for: because you're greedy and keeping the analog as well as -- as well as -- digital, and you're refusing to meet the time frame.

The idea we're going to wait till 2009 -- 2009 -- before we can say the next tragedy that strikes America we'll be able to have police, first responders, local, state and federal agencies speak to one other? That's what we're saying, until you get the analog back.

This administration has done virtually nothing. The president should be right now calling all the major networks into his office and saying, "We need a deal now. We need something now."

With regard to trains, we have done virtually nothing. We live in the corridor, Northeast corridor. Virtually nothing has been done, notwithstanding the fact the agencies have told us trains are a target. Today, at 5:00 this afternoon, there will be more than the equivalent of seven full -- excuse me -- 14 full 747s underneath the six tunnels -- underneath New York City with people in aluminum tubes called rail cars -- no escape, no ventilation, no lighting, no cameras, virtually no police. We have a plan that's been sitting there for five years for $860 million to rebuild and modernize those tunnels. We have done nothing.

So my message today is quite clear, that we need a massive reprioritization of the expenditures of federal monies. We need a minimum of $40 billion put into a 10-year program to deal with domestic infrastructure. We have to focus on all these grades here that the administration is flunking. And money for local law enforcement, and communications equipment for our first responders, rail and port security has to be put back.

There's much more to say on this, but the bottom line is, folks, this is not a shop that is all prepared to guard America against an attack. We are abysmally, abysmally negligent in the way in which we have dealt with homeland security.

Now, Jack Reed, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and West Point graduate who served this country as an Army Ranger, is going to talk about another aspect of our unpreparedness relating to the National Guard.

SEN. REED: Thank you. Thanks very much, Joe. And it's a pleasure to be here with Senator Joe Biden, Senator Bob Menendez.

And let me second the comments that Senator Biden made. First, transit security -- the two major incidents since 9/11, at least two of the most prominent, in Spain and in London, involved transit trains that were the target of terrorists. And yet, we still haven't developed an effective means of planning for transit security in this country. The president's budget does not provide the needed resources to do that. We've spent about $7.38 per passenger on aviation security, and we've made some progress there; about a penny on transit security. And as Senator Biden pointed out, there are millions and millions of people a day that ride the rails, both inter-city and intra-city. And that's something we have to do.

Interoperational communications equipment. That's one of the first needs in any crisis situation. Katrina exposed the lack of that equipment. Still there's no money available. Senator Stabenow last year called for $5 billion to be put into the budget. Her amendment was defeated by the Republicans.

They didn't want to put that kind of money towards a real problem, making sure that all of our emergency responders can speak.

Senator Biden covered the COPS program. Again, valuable. Joe's so right. Our first line of defense are our firefighters and police officers, people on the street in their neighborhoods who will notice something is amiss and take prompt action. If they know what to do, and I think they do, and if they can communicate, we're ahead. If they're not well trained, if they can't communicate, then something terrible could happen.

But my particular concern is the status of the National Guard. Since 9/11, we have had 350,000 personnel on the rolls of the Army National Guard; that this budget, the president asked for only 330,000. We need at least 350,000 National Guardsmen and women. We need them not only to deploy overseas, we need them here to respond to potential catastrophes, either natural, man-made or some terrorist attack.

We have to ensure that they have the forces. The governors just wrote the president on a bipartisan basis and said we need all of these troops in order to get the job done.

And there's something else that we need. We need to give these men and women the equipment that they need to do the job. In September of 2001, the Army National Guard had 75 percent of its equipment on hand and available for both use state-side and overseas in a deployment. Since that time, the Army Guard has been activated. And I will speak from Rhode Island, but Delaware and New Jersey have seen the same thing.

I've been out to Iraq seven times. Every time, I've had a chance to visit a Rhode Island National Guard unit, a different one, on the ground serving their country. Now their equipment readiness has fallen to about 34 percent of equipment on hand; from about 77 (percent) to 34 percent.

The GAO has done a report. They claim, and accurately, that more than 101,000 pieces of National Guard equipment -- trucks, radios, night-vision devices -- have been sent to soldiers in overseas operations and effectively left behind. So we have now a National Guard that is deployed across the world -- (inaudible) -- here in some cases, and their equipment is deployed across the world. They need all the personnel and all the equipment to do the job.

If we don't provide this equipment and provide sufficient personnel, if there is some type of catastrophic event, our Guard will not be able to respond as it should.

These are serious problems, they're problems that are being virtually ignored by the administration. They can't be ignored.

SEN. BIDEN: I'd like now to introduce a guy you've already heard from today, but Bob Menendez -- Senator Menendez, which you all know, but people are not familiar with, he was one of the guys -- one of the three leaders in the House who fought for the establishment of this 9/11 commission. This is a guy who has forgotten more about this than most of the members over here know. And he's been working on port security. He's going to talk a little bit about that, and then we'll be happy to try to answer your questions.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Thank you, Senator Biden. It's good to be with you and Senator Reed in our advocacy of how we secure America. And, you know, part of, I think, the interesting aspect of this is that for the past several years, the White House and the Republicans in Congress have been very public and very brazen about their intentions to turn our national security into a political issue. And it isn't random boasting. The Bush administration has dealt that card from the bottom of the deck from the very beginning of their tenure. And every time that we suggest that there is a better way, a much better way to make America safer, Republicans whip that same card out and challenge not only our resolve, but also our patriotism. What's lost in all of this is whether or not Republican policies truly make Americans safer. And this independent 9/11 commission discourse project I think has a very clear analysis for it for the American people. So far, this is not making America safer.

So today, on the third anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, we're convinced that they simply do not. For all of their talk about the lessons of September 11th, and for all of their chest-beating on cable news channels and Sunday talk shows, it's glaringly obvious that the administration is stuck in, actually, a pre-9/11 mentality.

And the most recent element -- evidence of this is the Dubai Ports World deal. You know, the administration has ducked this debate by disingenuously calling the -- or claiming that there is no difference -- no difference -- between the current port operator, a private company, and Dubai Ports World, which is owned by the government of Dubai. But that claim is simply wrong on its face. There is a vast difference between a publicly-traded company that answers to shareholders and a state one -- a state-owned one that answers only to a foreign government.

Terminal operators -- and I've represented prior to coming to the Senate for the last 13 years the mega-port of the East Coast, the port of Elizabeth in Newark, which is part of the greater port of New York and New Jersey; 145 million tons last year, 5,000 foreign ships that have come into the port of Elizabeth in Newark. Terminal operators develop port security plans that contain sensitive security information. They are responsible for securing the perimeter of the terminal and determining how drivers who move cargo to and from the port are identified. They conduct security training for dock workers and communicate with federal authorities in the event of a security problem, and these are only some elements of what they do.

The Dubai Port World merger would put a company controlled by a foreign government in charge of these and other functions, and we heard Tuesday that the Coast Guard raised initial objections to this deal because of intelligence gaps. I'm not quite sure how those intelligence gaps were ultimately filled in a way that resolves our security concerns. And ironically it's the Bush administration's failure to adequately secure our ports that it's placed the terminal operators in such a key security role.

For all the money that the nation has poured into improving our security, several critical links in the chain have been ignored, and this week the spotlight has shown brightly one aspect of our problem -- our ports. The port of entry for hundreds of thousands of containers every day, containing everything from clothing to electronics, but these containers could also contain a much more dangerous cargo such as a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon.

The bottom line is that we don't know what is in the vast majority of containers entering the country every day, because despite repeated warnings from security experts, from both within and without our government, only one out of every 20 containers that passes through our ports is screened at all.

Ninety-five percent receive no screening other than a cursory glance at a cargo manifest.

If a foreign government-owned company controls our ports, what would happen if they decide to shut down those operations, for example, at a critical moment, such as when we are shipping much- needed supplies to our troops in the field? Increasingly, we send military supplies and equipment through commercial ports. If you did nothing more than the benign act of saying, "We own the port operation, the terminal operations; we're going to close down that terminal operation," at a moment in which we are trying to promote equipment and supplies to troops in the field, does that not put the United States at a disadvantage?

And it's also crucial that we develop a national transportation plan that includes a comprehensive strategy for the ports. The Coast Guard tells us, for example, that it will cost $5.4 billion over the next 10 years for port security. This is from their advantage, just strictly in the context of the Coast Guard. And yet we have only spent $800 million since September 11th.

This is not a new problem, but it shows us, again, no one has a monopoly on ultimately ensuring the security of the United States.

We have a different idea as to how we achieve that security, and we believe that our ideas would get passing grades, not failing grades.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you. We'll take questions.

Let me just add one point to what Senator Menendez said. You know, it is our hope -- and you saw a little bit in the last press conference -- that our Republican colleagues, now feeling that -- now that this is focused and the spotlight is on this, will no longer feel bound to toe the Republican administration's line. The hope is from all of this -- at least my hope is -- that there emerges a nonpartisan recognition that we have been derelict, just flat derelict, in our duty.

And you know, Senator Hollings and I and many others -- but Hollings and I in October of 2001 introduced the Port Security Act.

We couldn't even get it out. We couldn't even get anybody to listen to it. We introduced that bill in 2002 and 2003, as others did similar pieces of legislation. You couldn't even get it heard.

So our hope here is that now that is becoming crystal clear, the American people have seen the emperor has no clothes, the American people are figuring this out, that it's a greater priority instead of spending which is probably needed in the order of over the next 10 years -- in the order of somewhere around $60 billion over 10 years for security. This administration would rather see seven-tenths of 1 percent of the American people get a trillion-dollar tax cut.

This is about priorities. This is about what you think is important. We think national security is the singlemost important responsibility the United States government has to its people, and there's much that can be done, so we'd like to answer your questions or attempt to answer any questions you may have, and -- to any one of us.

Yes?

Q Senator Biden, on the ports deal, I wonder if I can get you to kind of bring to the crossroads where national security and foreign relations meet. What is the talk of this, the hubabub (sic) that's gone on about this, what is it doing to our allies that are in that part of the world? And if the momentum continues to go and there's more questions even after the 45-day review and they want to overturn it, what signal does that send? What's really going on in that part of the world?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I think what's going on in that part of the world -- I mean this sincerely from my discussions -- is the incompetence of the administration. This could have all been avoided. None of us are here saying that if this deal gets turned down, that there's not mild repercussions, that we're not being -- that there isn't something that will ripple through the other parts of the world. It's a question of two bad options.

And this administration has put us in a position where this all could have been avoided had they responsibly done their job. But here they go out and they say it's a done deal. They don't consult anybody. They don't meet the 45-day investigative requirement. They don't do anything, and they put themselves in the position where now they're basically saying to us, "Look, because there may be some blowback for us, we're doing a very stupid thing." That's what they're really saying.

And the truth of the matter is there will be some blowback, but not much, because the rest of the world understands the reality of what we're asking the Arab world or we're asking the Muslim world. We're asking -- we're trying to win their hearts and minds. They got to work a little bit to win our hearts and minds, too. They got to work a little bit on making sure that we understand that they're in the deal and can be dealt with.

For example, port management. You know, they say, "Well, look, the Coast Guard does the security and the Customs does the security." Well, one little point in the ports management legislation that's out there: You have to have -- the Coast Guard has to submit a classified version of what they're doing to secure the port to the managing operation of that port. Does that report sit back on a computer in Dubai? Does that sit back there? Who has access to that computer?

So this isn't about -- and the last point I'll make is, most countries understand this because they've dealt with us for 40 years, the Foreign Military Sales Act. The Foreign Military Sales Act, we don't say all allies are created equal. We have a significant distinction. If we're selling -- as Jack knows -- if we're going to sell a weapon system to NATO, unless it reaches a very certain very high threshold, you can just sell it. And even when it reaches the threshold, there's very little consideration. But if we're selling the same system to an ally who's not part of NATO, there's a very different consideration process, a very different net through which this goes.

All these countries are very sophisticated, including the Gulf states, about what our system is. And so I don't buy what the State Department and others are saying, that this is going to do us overwhelming damage. It's no different than if they applied for a weapon system, they would have to go through a review process different than England would go through. Different than England would go through.

So this idea, which I find preposterous, that the administration suggests, in effect, "If you do it for England, why wouldn't you do it for the United Arab Emirates or for Dubai?" is a little bit like saying, "If you do it for England, why wouldn't you do it for Pakistan?" We don't do it that way. We have NATO allies, we have allies who have hundreds of years, in many cases, and decades of cooperation with us.

Do we want those who have cooperated of late to help us? Yes. But I don't think they're so unsophisticated that they read that as somehow this is an anti-Arab deal. And the administration's running a real risk, running a real risk because of their incompetence, to run that flag up the pole in hopes that we would say, "Oh, geez, we don't want to be viewed as being anti-Arab." This has nothing to do with anti-Arab. Not all allies are created equal. They never have been. And just look at our Foreign Military Sales legislation that's been in existence for four decades.

Q Sir, do you accept the fact that this was dealt with just on a lower level and that it was not known to the higher reaches of the White House?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, look, it's the old joke. If it was, they're incompetent, and if it wasn't, they're not telling the truth. Either way, it's bad.

SEN. : Thank you.

SEN. BIDEN: Okay?

SEN. : Thank you.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you all very, very much.


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