Byrd asks GAO to check out chemical plant protection

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has asked the General Accounting Office to see how much the private sector has spent on improving physical protection of various critical infrastructures nationwide since Sept. 11, 2001.

"Although the [Bush] administration has stated that many businesses have increased their investments in security, an independent assessment of this claim has not been made," Byrd wrote in a March 2 letter to David Walker, GAO's comptroller general.

He singled out the chemical industry in his letter, saying a "60 Minutes" news team last year breached several plants. He said the Homeland Security Department is relying heavily on the private sector to improve security on its own.

"The lack of security at our chemical plants leads to the broader question of whether the private sector is making the necessary investments to secure our critical infrastructure and key assets across all sectors," he wrote.

"In assessing the need for federal investments to secure our critical infrastructure, it will be essential for Congress to have measurable benchmarks of private-sector investments in such infrastructure, such as investments in chemical facilities, port security and cybersecurity," he wrote.

Byrd also repeatedly asked Frank Libutti, DHS' undersecretary of the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, whether the agency has a benchmark to show the private sector is making the necessary security investments.

Libutti, who testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee today, said he didn't have specific numbers, but the private sector is willing to work cooperatively with the federal government on improving security.

"The industry overall needs to belly up to deal with improved security across their industries and in particular high-threat areas," he said. "As a subset of that, I would say a high-threat area is being near a large, populated area."

Libutti said DHS officials have visited several chemical sites during the past several months that could be targets, and visits to 360 more sites and facilities have been planned for the coming months. But, he said, the department sent out documents to all sites to improve security.

"We have seen them demonstrate a great spirit of cooperation in dealing with assessing the risk to their facilities and taking action to improve the readiness of those facilities, both in terms of preventative action and recovery activity," Libutti said.

About 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector. DHS officials have been working to assess industry vulnerabilities and risks, but critics charge they have been too slow in getting such information. Many say that unless the government conducts a risk management assessment and maps such critical infrastructures, money intended for security improvements will be spent poorly.

Recently, DHS started the Protected Critical Infrastructure Information program for businesses. It allows companies to voluntarily submit sensitive data about their physical and cyber infrastructures. Such data, if approved by the department, would be protected from the public under rules established by the federal government.

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