U.S. may be backsliding on security: Chertoff

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts Thu Feb 7, 2008 2:56am EST

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 24, 2008. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - From weak border controls to the risk of chemical bombs, the United States could be backsliding on national security since the September 11 attacks, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said on Wednesday.

"A couple of years after 9/11 it would not have seemed conceivable that a 'business as usual' mentality could creep back into our public mind-set. It has begun to return," Chertoff told a forum at Harvard University.

"I'm concerned that we are beginning to backslide," he said, citing several areas where the United States has faced trouble while seeking to get tougher on security after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

He said many residents, mayors and business owners are resisting the Department of Homeland Security's plan to build a border fence on private land -- a key part of his department efforts to stop "potential terrorists."

"They feel the cost of putting these measures in place keenly on a personal level, so they go and file lawsuits or create political agitation against building the fence," he said. "It's their property but we would pay for it."

They say "the fence may spoil the view, that it's an unfriendly signal to trading partners on other side. Maybe they are concerned that the fence will inhibit the ability of their cattle to get to the river," he added.

He also expressed concern over last year's postponement of rules that would require passports for U.S. citizens reentering the country by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or Caribbean countries.

"Border businesses are concerned that people who have to carry documents may not want to cross the border on impulse to go to a football game or to purchase something in the United States now that the dollar is a little bit cheaper," he said.

Congress enacted a law in 2004 requiring citizens returning from neighboring countries to show passports to bolster security following a recommendation by the September 11 commission. Previously, returning citizens were often allowed to cross the border with only an oral statement of their citizenship.

"Business groups mounted an enormous public campaign to delay our ability to put into effect the full measure that Congress mandated on secure documentation," he said.

He said the U.S. government has also had difficulty tightening rules on tens of thousands of U.S. chemical plants to protect their stockpiles from terrorists. In October, his department softened regulations to keep dangerous materials out of the hands of terrorists after facing an industry outcry.

"We don't want a chemical plant sitting somewhere in a place like Boston become a bomb because it is not properly secured," he said.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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