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America finds gaps in security hard to close

Federal, state, and local governments lag in emergency preparedness, a report finds.

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Nearly five years after 9/11, the United States remains far too vulnerable to natural disaster and major attack.

That's the consensus of security experts and a new federal report released Friday. Most states and local authorities lag in emergency planning, the report found. At the same time, the federal government is still struggling to close big security gaps in airline passenger screening and port security and at chemical plants, these experts say.

The reasons are many, they add, but a crucial one is American industry's limited security efforts. An estimated 85 percent of critical infrastructure is in private hands. But the Bush administration has largely resisted mandating the minimum security standards for business.

"What we've done at this point is look to the private sector to set their own security standards – and if they're doing it, they're doing it very, very slowly," says Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. "It's not working very well, so maybe we have to think more seriously about government imposing standards."

The result? The nation's guard is down, critics say, or at least not what it should be.

"We haven't come very far at all in terms of credible security that would deter a determined terrorist from going after the things most valuable and vulnerable," says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

The chemical industry, for example, has adopted voluntary standards yet remains highly vulnerable. The risk is so high that if a worst-case scenario occurred at any of 123 US chemical plants, the resulting release of toxic gases could put 1 million people at risk of exposure, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in April.

While the GAO noted some progress in chemical security, it reported that only one-sixth of 15,000 facilities with large quantities of dangerous chemicals are covered by federal security requirements. And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has no authority to require minimum standards. In March, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress he needed legislative authority to mandate minimum standards.

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