The furor over the now delayed deal to allow a United Arab Emirates company to operate six U.S. ports was tailor-made for talk radio. Arabs! At the ports! But the genuinely scary aspect of the deal was warnings from security experts that it doesn't much matter who operates America's maritime centers because none of them is totally secure. The problem pointed to most often is a lack of oversight. Customs agents inspect a small percentage of shipping containers, but the Bush Administration asks cargo companies to supervise the bulk of security. It's an arrangement designed to allow the President to be true to two bedrock principles--being tough on terrorism and resisting federal regulation of private industry. "That leads to a paradox in the security area," says Stephen Flynn, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, "because [security] requires a more assertive federal role."
But in areas just as vulnerable to attack as shipping, the Administration has consistently backed away from--and sometimes simply blocked--federal regulation. A terrorist attack on a chemical facility could kill thousands of people and endanger up to a million, federal experts say, so in mid-2002, the White House assigned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to secure the nation's chemical plants. The EPA and the fledgling White House Office of Homeland Security spent months developing a legislative package requiring the chemical industry to beef up security. In March 2003 a dozen senior Administration officials met in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House to put the finishing touches on what they considered a major initiative.
At that meeting, though, officials were surprised to see a new face--Philip Perry. As the top lawyer for the White House's Office of Management and Budget, Perry helped oversee Administration regulatory initiatives. According to Bob Bostock, then homeland-security adviser at the EPA, Perry, who hadn't attended any of the prior meetings, declared the proposal dead in a matter of minutes. "Perry said that any federal legislation to deal with this issue would be dead on arrival on the Hill," recalls Bostock, "and that the chemical industry was taking voluntary steps that were sufficient." Perry, who is married to Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Liz, was merely relaying a Justice Department decision that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), not the EPA, should handle the job, a spokesman says. While Perry declined to discuss the matter with TIME on the record, his spokesman says Perry doesn't recall the meeting and Bostock's account "is not accurate or fair."
Today only about 1,100 of the nation's 15,000 biggest plants participate in the voluntary security program. Even Bush loyalists are worried about the vulnerability that remains. "Not all chemical sites are good partners," said Asa Hutchinson, a former top Homeland Security official, at a recent chemical-industry gathering. "Some of the top-tier sites will not let Homeland Security inside the fence."