Obama pursuing Homeland Security Lite

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Obama pursuing Homeland Security Lite

Feb 17th, 2009 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.

A few weeks back, Osama Bin Laden emitted his latest address to the faithful, promising to "open new fronts" in his war against the West. While it is not clear what he meant, it is equally baffling trying to figure out what Washington is doing to thwart him and other enemies of America.

From Capitol Hill, the signals on security are just plain bad. Congressional leaders still refuse to consolidate oversight of the Homeland Security Department in a single committee -- even though the 9/11 Commission identified it as a necessary and critical reform. Worse, it's becoming questionable as to whether the committees charged with security responsibilities take their roles seriously.

Take the House Homeland Security Committee. Three high-powered veteran Democrats -- Reps. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) and James Langevin (R.I.) -- just bailed. In fact, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has installed eight new Democrats on the committee ... and six are freshmen.

The committee's agenda doesn't look promising either. This year's draft "oversight plan" -- detailing the focus of committee hearings and legislative action -- omits topics such as the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and "gaining operational control of the border."

Seeing the committee drop border security from its radar screen is particularly disturbing. Border violence is skyrocketing, primarily due to cartels and gangs smuggling drugs, people, money, and guns. These enterprises are so lucrative, they're not even asking for a government bailout. A "so what" attitude from Congress can't help.

The Executive Branch response has been odd as well.

Other than pledging to close Guantanamo Bay, the White House has said little about how it plans to stop extremists trying to kill us. The operative mantra seems to be "We'll study the problem."

Currently, they are "studying" what to do with the Guantanamo Bay detainees, including conducting a 30-day review to see if Gitmo is compliant with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Nothing wrong with that, except Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England got a report on that in 2006. Why not just read the report?

President Obama also wants a "study" of cyber-security issues. Last week, he appointed Melissa Hathaway to conduct a 60-day review of national cyber efforts. Hathaway is a logical choice. She's been at this issue a long time, even spearheading President Bush's $6 billion National Cyber-security Initiative. So why does she need two months to study the problem?

Cyber-security is a worldwide problem and should be a top-tier national concern. Last week the French grounded their fighter planes because a Microsoft virus wouldn't let the pilots download their fight plans. Action, not analysis should be the order of the day.

Meanwhile, over at the Department of Homeland Security, it's more study. Secretary Janet Napolitano is on a fact-finding tour, learning about disaster response. She's stopping off in Kentucky (ice storms); Iowa (floods), and Kansas (a tornado in 2007). As for Immigration and workplace enforcement? That's right, more study. The secretary just appointed a special adviser on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Detention and Removal.

No one's saying the White House should rush to do something earth-shattering on the security front. But a clear sign to America's enemies that the new Administration takes homeland security seriously would be most welcome.

Where to begin? First, how about publicly pressuring Congress to reform homeland security oversight? Second, squash ideas that the Homeland Security Department is a congressional play-thing. Security grant-making should not be turned into a pork fest and taking agencies like FEMA out of the department is a terrible idea.

In troubled times the world becomes less safe, not more. The 9/11 attacks came at a time when America was at its height--respected and feared throughout the world. Enemies bold enough to attack then will hardly be less determined to attack now.

The administration must start sending out very strong messages that there are no time outs in the terror war.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

First Appeared in the The D.C. Examiner