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Homeland Security lagging, ex-watchdog says

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Homeland Security Department has made the nation only marginally safer than it was before the 2001 terror attacks that spawned its creation, the agency’s former internal watchdog charges in a new book.

The memoir released Monday by former Homeland Security inspector general Clark Kent Ervin also accuses Tom Ridge, the department’s first secretary, of shutting down critics instead of focusing on terrorists.

Ridge’s office called Ervin’s charges “simply untrue,” and a Homeland Security spokesman said they were “disingenuous.”

Ervin, a mild-tempered Texas Republican who was a top aide to then-Gov. George W. Bush, served as Homeland Security’s first inspector general for nearly two years. His book, “Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Terrorism,” outlines security gaps at U.S. airports, in mass transit systems, and at borders. It points to the department’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina as proof that Homeland Security remains unprepared for threats.

“Clearly, the Homeland Security Department has served to make us only marginally safer, and in the age of terror, marginally safer is not enough,” Ervin wrote.

Though Ridge stepped down in 2005 and was replaced by current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, “to a large degree, the same old security gaps remain,” Ervin wrote.

The 256-page book by Ervin, now a security expert at the Aspen Institute, was published by Palgrave Macmillan with a first run of 150,000 copies. It is described by former 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean as “a must-read for those interested in the security of our people in this age of terror.”

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke disputed Ervin’s conclusions, pointing to safeguards that he said “simply didn’t exist on 9/11.”

“We’re the first to admit that there’s more that we want to accomplish,” Knocke said. “But I think it’s disingenuous to make the suggestion that somehow only marginal progress has been made.”

Most of Ervin’s barbs were directed at Ridge, recalling a May 2004 conversation in which he said the then-secretary took him to task for issuing public reports highlighting security vulnerabilities. “Instead of taking the terrorists on, he would take me on,” Ervin wrote of Ridge.

Ridge issued a statement Monday calling Ervin’s version of the story “wrong.” He denied he ever pressured Ervin against releasing critical reports, as the book charges.

“I thought our discussions were civil and professional,” Ridge said. “I never sought to keep any reports from Congress. The allegation is simply untrue.”