Legislation would combat terrorism, natural disasters

In the coming weeks, Congress will send the White House a crucial measure to strengthen the federal government’s ability to protect Americans not only from the kind of terrorist attacks we suffered on 9/11, but also from devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The Improving America’s Security Act of 2007 will implement most of the unfinished recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and represents another important step in the long path toward making all Americans as safe as possible.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen our nation’s security. After 9/11, we began with the creation of the 9/11 Commission to determine what went wrong and how we could avoid a similar tragedy in the future, and continued with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which was designed to provide unified leadership and sustained attention to the issue of Americans’ security here at home. We moved forward with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004, legislation that created the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counter Terrorism Center to bring greater unity of effort to the intelligence community — thus implementing the major recommendations of the commission.

The failed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the subsequent mismanaged recovery painfully demonstrated that we were still a nation unprepared for catastrophe. Together, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member on the committee, and I, along with our other committee colleagues, passed into law in the fall of 2006 major reform of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — reuniting preparedness with response, increasing FEMA’s operating budget and beefing up its incident management, disaster logistics and emergency communications.

Now, more must be done to speed up the process of FEMA reform reinvention, and the committee is closely overseeing the agency’s implementation of our recent legislation. We need to be better prepared, and that means spending more — not less, as the Bush administration has consistently proposed. Consequently, new 9/11 legislation, the Improving America’s Security Act, authorizes significant resources to support first responders by restoring funding for key grant programs to $3.1 billion per year the next three years, returning to the funding level of fiscal 2004. The measure will help shore up emergency management planning nationwide by authorizing $913 million in grants through the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) program to help states prepare for and respond to all hazards — whether natural disasters or acts of terrorism.

The new legislation would also create a dedicated grants program for states specifically for emergency and interoperable communications. The program would be authorized at $3.3 billion over five years. The legislation also contains significant increases in funding to better secure the non-aviation transportation infrastructure that has received far too little attention since 9/11. The Act wisely ensures that grants primarily designed to protect against terrorism are determined on the basis of risk, while providing sufficient resources so that all states can develop minimum capabilities to respond to all hazards.

Beyond increased resources, the Improving America’s Security Act would strengthen homeland security intelligence sharing and coordination by creating standards for state, local and regional fusion centers tied to the allocation of homeland security grants,  authorizing the assignment of DHS intelligence analysts to the fusion centers, establishing intelligence training for state, local and tribal officers, and creating a fellows program for these officials to spend time at DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, learning about its intelligence and information-sharing functions.

The legislation also strengthens information sharing by expanding the authority of the program manager for the Information Sharing Environment first mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and creating government-wide incentive programs to share terrorism information. Plus, this legislation will ensure that the fundamental rights of the American people are better protected by strengthening the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board that was also established in 2004.

The president, alas, has threatened to veto this important legislation because it provides collective bargaining rights to Transportation Security Officers — the diligent men and women who screen aviation passengers and carry-on baggage at airports throughout the country. The president argues this benefit will jeopardize security. But public employees with union rights bravely and effectively protect our security every day, and the bill would give no greater workplace protections to screening officers than what most of their colleagues throughout the Department of Homeland Security already have. In fact, the provision simply gives TSA officers parity with other security officers in the department.

I hope the president changes his mind because the men and women who serve their country as Department of Homeland Security employees deserve to be treated fairly, and the American people need and deserve the added security protections in this legislation.

Lieberman is the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.