Schumer to head Democrats' watchdog security group

| 1/29/2003

New York Sen. Charles Schumer will head the Homeland Security Task Force, a watchdog group organized by Senate Democrats to keep an eye on anti-terror efforts at home, The Associated Press reported.

As part of his new role, Schumer spoke on domestic defense issues before and after President Bush's State of the Union address Jan. 28.

The group will oversee the new Homeland Security Department as well as other agencies with anti-terror functions, such as the FBI and the Customs Service.

“Homeland security has been a passion of mine since the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993,” Schumer said.

Though the task force will comprise only Democrats, Schumer insisted it would function as a nonpolitical reality check on security efforts.

Panel members will “not just take partisan shots for their own sake,” Schumer said.

Schumer concerned about terrorism via trucks

In December, Schumer wrote to the Transportation Security Administration that fuel-laden trucks carrying hazardous materials were potential terrorist weapons the federal government needed to regulate more closely.

"The TSA has done an admirable job with securing our airports, and now I respectfully urge that the TSA put the same effort into ensuring the safety of our trucks," Schumer wrote. "As I am sure you are aware, the imminent danger posed by unsecured trucks has been highlighted by three attacks this year in which fuel-laden trucks were used."

New York City is vulnerable, he said, because its entryways from New Jersey carry heavy truck traffic. The George Washington Bridge sees about 15,000 trucks a day, the Holland Tunnel is traveled by nearly 8,000, and nearly 9,000 trucks pass along the Goethals/Verrazano/Gowanus/BQE each day, Schumer said.

Schumer fears a truck carrying hazardous material could be parked next to a large office building and cause untold damage. He said 2,000 hazardous materials shipments pass through the city each day, and the only existing government regulation of such shipments deals with driving safety.

GPS and panic buttons urged; OOIDA responds

Schumer suggested truck fleets adopt Global Positioning System (GPS) technology as quickly as possible.

"If a terrorist planned an attack using a truck carrying dangerous chemicals or fuel, authorities would quickly be able to tell that the shipment was off course, pinpoint the location of the truck and stop the attack," Schumer said.

However, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, disagreed.

"The senator should be concerned about terrorism and trucks," Spencer said. "But his suggestions are off the mark. There are some 800,000 hazmat shipments a day in the United States, and 300,000 of those are carrying gasoline into every community in the country. How would you know which of those trucks is off-route?

"For example, an accident or bad weather could cause a truck to be off-route," he said. "When would the alarm go off in such a case? We should be thinking about the quality of the truckdriver through professional training related to the potential of trucks as terrorist weapons and providing a far greater level of scrutiny to who has access to trucks to start with."

Schumer also suggested use of panic buttons in case a truck is hijacked or automatic engine kill switches that could be triggered remotely in case a truck is stolen or veers off its intended delivery route.

"Once again, there's little thought here about the truckdriver," Spencer said. "If I'm a driver and someone tells me my truck is suddenly going to stop, I'd be thinking about my own safety, not to mention that of other drivers on the highway. I can't think of a scenario where a panic button or kill switch would make me more comfortable."

The senator also said the new group would highlight what he called a lack of resources for border security and security at nuclear plants like Indian Point, NY, just north of Manhattan.

--By Dick Larsen, senior editor