Hollings: 'Keep quiet' on bag check delays
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If the Bush administration can't meet new deadlines for screening all checked airline baggage, then Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta should "keep it quiet," according to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.
Saying he was "dismayed" about Mineta's announcement Tuesday that the government is unlikely to have the checks in place in less than two months, Hollings and two other Democratic senators Wednesday denounced the secretary for making his assessment public.
All three lawmakers expressed outrage the deadline could be missed, despite repeated congressional testimony from the Federal Aviation Administration's inspector general that such a short-term goal was unachievable.
"If he deems it impossible to be done, tell him to keep it quiet, to himself, and come see us," said Hollings. Mineta said Tuesday he would have to go to Congress and "explain to (lawmakers) that we're not going to meet that by January."
Just before Thanksgiving, the lawmakers touted approval of new aviation security legislation as the tonic to restore public confidence in flying, and are now appalled at Mineta's admission.
The FAA says at least 2,000 bomb-detection machines would have to be in place by January 18, 2002 to screen all bags, but the agency estimates the two companies now certified to make those machines could not produce that many even by the end of next year.
The assessment, however, did not deter Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., from insisting "it's not acceptable to the Congress for (Mineta) to announce you're not able to meet deadlines that we've established."
Dorgan and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., suggested one alternative would be to have National Guard troops search checked baggage by hand, but the FAA insists that would be so time consuming that commercial aviation would quickly grind to a halt.
Asked about the dilemma, President Bush Wednesday told reporters "We're doing everything we can to meet the deadline, and we're doing everything we can to make sure the American people feel safe."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested the two-month time frame was unrealistic and said Mineta was simply being forthright with Congress.
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