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Dick Cheney's Dangerous Son-in-Law

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While Vice-President Cheney has been pursuing a war in Iraq that has led to an increase in terrorism worldwide, his son-in-law, Philip Perry, until very recently the general counsel of DHS, has been working behind the scenes to make it easy for those terrorists to hit chemical facilities at home. The upshot, to put it bluntly: more Americans have died in war and are at risk of terrorism because of this family's efforts.

The Washington Monthly reports today in its online edition -- and in the magazine early next week -- on the critical role Phil Perry has played in recent years in derailing meaningful and tough chemical security oversight on behalf of the chemical industry. My article, backed with research assistance by the Nation Institute, is called, "Dick Cheney's Dangerous Son-In-Law." As reported in hearings yesterday, he's also played a key role in thwarting oversight investigations into alleged abuses at DHS.

A foretaste of what could happen if a plant contained highly toxic chemicals came with Wednesday's explosion of a chemical plant in Kansas City that forced an evacuation. Fortunately, it seems, the plant didn't contain the sort of highly common toxic gases that, like chlorine, can kill or injure 100,000 people in 30 minutes if those chemicals are released. But currently, as the Washington Monthly points out, EPA data shows that at least 700 sites across the country could potentially threaten the lives of 100,000 or more people if attacked. But thanks to the agressive anti-regulatory efforts of administration officials such as Phil Perry, the chemical industry is not required to switch to safer chemicals or processes, known as "inherently safer technologies" (IST), even when they're available and economically feasible, although such changes could save countless lives.

Perry is a former lawyer-lobbyist for Latham and Watkins, which has represented at various times the leading trade group, The American Chemistry Council. His latest industry favors came when he helped craft weak pro-industry legislation this past fall that allows chemical plants to choose their own security measures and bars private groups from suing to make sure that DHS enforces the law. To top it off, he then slapped into new regulations issued by the DHS in December a provision allowing the pro-industry DHS to pre-empt stronger state laws, as in New Jersey. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been furious. "In order to please their cronies in the chemical industry, the Bush administration is willing to put the health and safety of millions of people at risk," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) about the new law and regulations. Democratic Senators will be working to overturn the regulations pre-empting state laws, but it could be slow going in the Senate because of the ability of Republicans to slow down measures.

Some highlights from the Monthly article:

For the chemical industry, which has always had a chilly relationship with the EPA, Perry has been a consistent, quiet friend. "Phil Perry was never the EPA's biggest fan," says former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, recounting the relationship. "I think there was a predisposition on his part that we were trying to overreach." she says [ referring to his blocking of EPA's efforts in 2002 and 2003 to regulate the security of the chemical facilities it monitors under the Clean Air Act.] Indeed, like many Republican hardliners, for whom the EPA represents all that is wrong with government regulation, Perry has sought to limit the role of the EPA, not expand it. He's been successful.

To understand the workings of Philip Perry is to get a sense of the true lines of power in the executive branch. "Perry is an éminence grise," says one congressional staffer. "He's been pretty good at getting his fingerprints off of anything, but everyone in this field knows he's the one directing it. He is very good at the stealth move." And, as it turns out, Perry's stealth moves have often benefited opponents of chemical regulation. One of his final pieces of handiwork included coming up with what critics have called an "industry wish list" on chemical security that ultimately became law last fall. "Every time the industry has gotten in trouble," says the staffer, "they've gone running to Phil Perry."

The result has been that our chemical sites remain, even five years after 9/11, stubbornly vulnerable to attack. Philip Perry has hardly been alone in tolerating this. Others in the White House and Congress have been equally solicitous toward the chemical industry. But as part of a network of Cheney loyalists in the executive branch, Perry has been a key player in the struggle to prevent the federal government from assuming any serious regulatory role in business, no matter what the cost. And a successful attack on a chemical facility could make such a cost high indeed. A flippant critic might say the father-in-law has been prosecuting a war that creates more terrorists abroad, while the son-in-law has been working to ensure they'll have easy targets at home. But it's more precise to say that White House officials really, really don't want to alienate the chemical industry, and Perry has been really, really willing to help them not do it.

The dangers posed by the weak laws and lax oversight that Perry has helped promote have been underscored by U.S. PIRG and Greenpeace, and their websites are good resources for activists and journalists seeking more insight into the topic. The American Chemistry Council, in turn, has given lip-service to federal oversight of the industry, but has sought to undermine strong laws and regulations every step of the way -- and praised the new law that Perry helped develop for them. A recent New York Times editorial, "Chemical Insecurity," outlined what's at stake.

As Rick Hind of Greenpeace notes about the new DHS regulation, written essentially by Perry for his allies in the chemical industry:

The proposed Department of Homeland Security rule fails to provide the
protection the nation and communities living in the shadow of thousands
of chemical plants need. This is primarily due to the fatally flawed
statute (Sec. 550) the proposed regulations are based on.

Unlike the bi-partisan legislation (H.R. 5695) adopted by the House
Homeland Security Committee in the 109th Congress, Sec. 550:

Fails to require safer technologies that can reduce or eliminate the
magnitude of an attack on high risk facilities or require any other
"particular security measure."

Fails to protect approximately 3,000 U.S. water treatment plants as
well as several other exempted categories. Nearly 100 water treatment
plants each put 100,000 or more people at risk.

Fails to give the DHS criteria for choosing high-risk plants. As a
result, there is no assurance that the 4,391 most hazardous facilities
will be prioritized for protection.

Fails to set schedules to secure chemical plants by not giving DHS
deadlines to approve or disapprove security plans.

Fails to require meaningful involvement of plant employees in
developing vulnerability assessments and security plans.

Fails to include whistleblower protections to enhance enforcement.

Fails to protect the right of states to establish stronger security

Fails to protect the public's right-to-know by asserting authority
to classify previously public information as secret, including information
used in civil or criminal enforcement actions.

All this -- plus the war in Iraq. The Cheney family, including Philip Perry, has done more than its share to help keep America unsafe, despite Vice-President Cheney's bellicose rhetoric.