- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2013

Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano will be remembered for her battles over immigration, but her time in office was also defined by unpopular pat-downs and “naked X-rays” at the airport, controversy over terrorism information sharing, and struggles in dealing with emerging cyberthreats.

Helming the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, which oversees everything from the federal response to natural disasters to the Secret Service details that protect the president, Ms. Napolitano has managed her share of crises and enjoyed a few major successes, including highly praised responses to several extreme weather events.

But as she prepares to step down after more than four years in charge, it is the struggles that are likely to be remembered, in particular those of the DHS agency that interacts most with the American public and is by some measures the most unpopular agency in the federal government: the Transportation Security Administration.

‘Don’t touch my junk’

In 2009, two unsuccessful al Qaeda suicide plots involving underwear bombs prompted a serious rethink of aviation security.

“After [the unsuccessful attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner with an underwear bomb by Nigerian student Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab, we took a look at our security measures,” said a DHS official who spoke on condition of anonymity

“We are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our procedures. [We need to] understand the structure, the design and the materials used” by al Qaeda bombmakers.

But the most high-profile response eventually deployed by DHS, the use of so-called advanced imaging technology screening machines and more intrusive pat-downs, was a PR disaster.

The scanners — which provided airport security screeners with an image of the traveler that revealed the outlines of their body under their clothes — became notorious as “naked X-ray” machines. And a man who taped himself at a checkpoint being patted down after he declined the scanning became a hero to many when he told screeners, “Don’t touch my junk.”

But Ms. Napolitano’s approach to aviation security earned praise from an unexpected quarter over the weekend.

“Generally, they’ve done pretty well on aviation security,” James Carafano, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation said, highlighting the bilateral agreements on aviation security and information-sharing Ms. Napolitano had negotiated. “Their international partnership efforts have been very successful.”

Mr. Carafano also defended the department’s record on the complex and constantly evolving question of how to defend the nation from online attacks.

Since the turn of the century, national security specialists have been warning with growing urgency about the vulnerability of our online lives to fraudsters, identity thieves, hackers and other malefactors. At stake: not just individuals’ privacy, bank accounts and credit ratings, but the integrity and reliability of vital national systems such as banking, the power grid and the phone system.

Mr. Carafano said the department’s success had not been on the policy front, but rather in terms of “internally recognizing what the requirements are for a skilled and qualified [cybersecurity] workforce.”

Policy tensions

“The problem is [with cybersecurity policy], it’s a moving target,” said Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a former Democratic House Homeland Security Committee staff director.

“The threat is changing, the technology is changing” she said, noting how quickly online attacks against critical national infrastructure emerged after Stuxnet — a sophisticated cyberweapon developed by the United States and Israel — successfully sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program in 2009-10.

With legislation on the issue thwarted for almost a decade, successive administrations have wrestled with the highly complex and controversial issue of how to “integrate emerging technology that affects cybersecurity with the more traditional roles involved in protecting critical infrastructure,” she said.

“There’s always been the tension about the balance,” she said.

For the current administration, this has played out in vocal public suspicions over the activities of DHS and the National Security Agency in the cybersecurity realm.

But the issue did not begin in the current administration and, indeed, predates the formation of the DHS in 2003, said Ms. Herrera-Flanigan.

“The players have changed but those tensions are still there,” she said.

Charges of political correctness

But perhaps the most controversial, and certainly the most fiercely contested of the criticisms leveled at DHS under Ms. Napolitano’s tenure, is that her department — indeed, the whole administration — has been hamstrung in its counterterrorism strategy by political correctness.

Republicans have been vocal in their insistence that the administration’s eschewal of the use of the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” in favor of “violent extremism,” has handicapped counterterrorism efforts.

“We’ve been very clear in implementing our strategy that our top priority is to focus on those led or inspired by al Qaeda and its affiliates or their ideology,” said a senior DHS official who spoke on condition of anonymity during an interview arranged by the department’s press office.

“The notion that this administration has not leaned forward at least as hard as its predecessor to detect and prevent acts of violence by al Qaeda and its affiliates or its adherents is ill-informed and frankly insulting,” said the official, who has worked in counterterrorism in the Obama and Bush administrations.

Indeed, John Cohen, a senior adviser to Ms. Napolitano, said that had been the focus of the department’s efforts working with state and local first responders.

“We are safer and better prepared [at the federal state and local level] to deal with mass casualty attacks because of that investment, because of that training and exercising because of those partnerships,” Mr. Cohen said.

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