Napolitano Gets It Right on Cargo Screening

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Napolitano Gets It Right on Cargo Screening

Aug 12th, 2012 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

The bill adopting key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission had just passed the House. Rushing to the floor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi uttered a brief platitude about bipartisanship, then promptly claimed the bill's passage was due solely to the fact that Democrats had "taken power ... doing in six months what the three previous Congresses could not do in nearly six years."

It was a new high (or low) in using homeland security for political grandstanding. And since then, Congress has had a hard time treating the issue as anything more than a partisan volley ball.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Reps. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and Jim Turner, D-Texas, led the House Homeland Security Committee, while then-Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine headed up the Senate panel. From the start they wanted homeland security to be anything but a partisan plaything.

But the U.S. occupation in Iraq initiated an era of division, distrust and partisan opportunism. Pelosi's push for the 9/11 act seemed animated largely by a desire to steal the mantle of homeland security from the Republicans. The bill quickly became a grab bag of tough-sounding security measures, regardless of whether they were practical, worth doing, or even the right thing to do.

Exhibit A: The law's requirement that 100 percent of all cargo containers shipped to the United States undergo scanning. The 9/11 Commission had never recommended such a measure. Numerous security experts argued it was an unrealistic goal, a poor use of resources and a bad strategy for dealing with threats. But Pelosi was all for it.

And why not? It sounded tough. Better yet, Republicans thought it was a lousy idea.

However, Washington is full of surprises, and they aren't all unpleasant. Last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano -- a former Democratic governor and an Obama appointee -- spoke out against this unworkable mandate during a congressional hearing. And she held to her position despite hostile questions from congressional Democrats. "There are a lot of ways to protect the ports of the United States ... from dangerous cargo," Napolitano pointed out. It makes no sense, she argued, to blindly strive to meet an inspection mandate "if it's not feasible, practical, affordable or causes undue interference with cargo. ..."

It is not the only time that Napolitano's department has done the right thing rather than the politically advantageous thing. Just this month, Transportation Security Administration officials announced that they had given Sacramento International Airport preliminary approval to move toward private screeners. That's after eight years of focusing more on protecting a bloated government screening force than focusing on the core issue of keeping terrorists off the plane.

Such small, sane steps show that politics don't always trump sound policy -- at least not forever.

So what does it take for Washington to shift from scoring political points to scoring smart policy points? For starters, it takes decision-makers who know what the heck they're talking about.

When politicians aren't sure what the right policy answer is, the default decision is opt for the politically advantageous course. On the other hand, when there is a common "praxis" -- a widely accepted way of doing and thinking about things -- it's a lot harder to go your own way. During the Cold War, for example, the strategy of containment was embraced by both the Left and the Right. That consensus made bipartisan cooperation possible.

Now, more than 10 years after 9/11, we have a lot more experience under our belt. We know a lot more about what works and what doesn't. It is time to stop doing senseless security, and to stop promoting it by playing politics with our security.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner.