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    A Times Editorial

    Put security first

    The government must make airports and seaports safe, regardless of cost or convenience to the public, and not be diverted from that goal.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 16, 2002

    The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida, said something about terrorism worth heeding the other day in the context of port security. The key to diminishing the threat, he said, is to "stay the course, keep focused on what our primary objective is (and) avoid the allure of distractions."

    That's precisely the weak point in the security debate over America's airports and seaports. Though the nation's entryways are tighter than before Sept. 11, the focus on security still isn't the priority it needs to be.

    The new Transportation Security Administration has come a long way in a short time to improve security at the airports. Federal workers are taking over passenger screening. Airports are getting machines to detect bombs in luggage. Better procedures are in place to protect passengers in the air.

    The agency's chief, James Loy, also has repaired many of the bureaucratic and public relations blunders that forced his predecessor, John Magaw, from office. This better working relationship with the airlines and Congress is essential for the TSA to perform its important job.

    The challenge, as Graham noted, will be in resisting the temptation to let vigilance lapse in the name of cost or convenience to the American public. We see it already, in the deadlines being broken for the installation of airport bomb-detection machines and with the growing sentiment in the government to speed "trusted" passengers through security. These are prime examples of how quickly our resolve has slipped, allowing convenience to fliers and the cash-strapped airline industry to be put above the idea that security comes first.

    Improving security at airports and seaports will involve doing more than integrating federal and local law enforcement at home. Our allies need to do a better job of tracking who and what comes from overseas. It will be difficult for the United States to lead by example as long as our own citizens manage to carry illegal weapons onboard. An ABC News correspondent reported recently on the ease with which he carried depleted uranium across Europe and to the United States. These episodes weaken our nation's credibility to argue for tougher standards abroad.

    Graham also was right to call attention to the vulnerability of America's seaports. They have not received adequate attention, and the nature of securing a porous coast presents challenges the airports couldn't imagine. State and local governments have made progress, installing fencing and deploying patrol boats to amplify a security presence. But Graham is right: The nation should not wait until the seaports are used for a terrorist strike to beef up security there.

    The TSA's ability to field federal screeners at the passenger gates of all commercial airports by November and the competence of that force will signal how far the commitment to security has come since last year's terrorist attacks. Congress and the Bush administration play a risky game by seeking wiggle room on other security measures that air travelers have come to expect. The government's primary obligation is to make airports and seaports safe, if inconvenient, parts of a community. That mission is easier achieved when the government doesn't waver.

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