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The recent bombing attacks on London’s public transport are a tragic reminder that terrorists remain committed to striking at a time and place of their choosing. As mass transit systems around the world raised defenses in response, law enforcement officials made difficult choices. For sprawling subway systems as large as Washington’s, New York’s or Boston’s, limited resources simply do not permit authorities to position a police officer at every entrance or to search every passenger carrying a backpack. Even if resources were not finite, smothering subway and bus systems in layers of security would neutralize the operational efficiencies that define city transportation networks. Risk management-a sometimes odd measure of threat, vulnerability and consequence-largely defined which subway stations received the most law enforcement attention beginning on the morning of July 7. From insurance premiums to building codes, risk has always been a metric for allocating scarce resources or establishing standards of practice. In the context of homeland security, risk analysis is a more recent development. Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), recently said that with “finite resources and our finite number of employees, we have to be able to focus . . . on those priorities which most demand our attention. And that means we have to focus on risk. And what does that mean? It means we look to consequence, it means we look to vulnerability, and it means we look to threat.” If risk were a continuum-in which homeland security assets are allocated based on the likelihood of attack, vulnerability to attack and the consequences of an attack-no risk is more severe than a terrorist armed with a weapon of mass destruction. A chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) strike has the potential not only to kill and injure but also to create long-term response and remediation challenges. Urban targets of a CBRN attack could be amputated from the national economy. For these reasons, a CBRN attack represents a unique risk. Government officials have rightly adopted a “zero tolerance” policy because CBRN attacks cannot be managed; from a psychological, economic and social point of view, they must be prevented. Protecting chemical facilities But designing and implementing “zero tolerance” requires a multifaceted strategy. It includes timely intelligence, state-of-the-art detection technologies, cooperation between government and industry, and an ability to recognize evolving threats. However, as witnessed by recent developments in the chemical industry, when the market fails to improve security, federal law may also be a remedy to correct unreasonable risk. An attack at a chemical facility could have devastating consequences: A 2003 report prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that a terror attack at 123 identified chemical facilities could release a toxic plume with the potential to endanger more than one million people. A 2005 analysis conducted by the Congressional Research Service found similar results. Preventing terrorists from turning chemical facilities into prepositioned weapons of mass destruction is a continuing challenge. Although the chemical industry has established programs to identify and correct security vulnerabilities at its facilities, the voluntary nature of these programs has led to inconsistent results. Some facilities have improved defenses and maintain robust security procedures. Others are woefully under-secured. Even after Sept. 11, broken locks and open gates were discovered at some of the most vulnerable sites. The lack of federal oversight contributes to the inconsistent security practices. Primarily as a result of strong industry opposition, congressional at- tempts to address and mitigate this clear and present danger failed. Despite public warnings from law enforcement and intelligence officials that terrorists regard chemical facilities as attractive targets, the risk, it seems, was one worth taking. DHS demonstrated the weakness of a voluntary security paradigm when Robert Stephan, DHS assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, recently told Congress that “while most companies have been eager to cooperate with [DHS], it has become clear that the entirely voluntary efforts of these companies alone will not sufficiently address security for the entire sector.” Now, with the administration finally behind legislation, congressional action is likely to succeed. Just before the summer recess, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution calling for mandatory chemical security standards. Although chemical security legislation will help make facilities safer, the process may be as important as the outcome. In a nation in which dangers outnumber the resources to confront them, attempting to secure every possible target against every possible contingency is unreasonable-and, arguably, dangerous. Risk management represents a sensible way to address security challenges while preserving the openness and freedoms that must be protected most. Steven E. Roberts, an NLJ columnist, is a homeland security consultant.

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