- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

Although homeland security appears to be one of the dominant issues in the upcoming election, there has been relatively little meaningful debate between the candidates or the two parties on most issues.

The arrival of the September 11 commission report could have set the stage for a serious debate on a wide array of important homeland security issues over the next several weeks, particularly with its call on citizens and policy makers to “study, reflect — and act.” Instead, it arrived like a snowball rolling downhill toward intelligence reform.

Improving the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence should be a key ingredient in our homeland security strategy going forward. But intelligence reform alone will not be a panacea. Better intelligence is of little use to the law enforcement and homeland security communities if they lack the policies, people and resources to act on the information

And, as the case of the millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, demonstrates, intelligence may not play any role in stopping a terrorist attack. Instead, it may come down to good law enforcement. Against this backdrop, there are several issues — homeland security funding, immigration reform and preventing terrorist travel, to name a few — that merit serious consideration by the presidential candidates and Congress in the weeks ahead.

Although the president and Congress deserve credit for substantially increasing homeland security funding over the last three years — increases that have made us much safer — there can be no question homeland security is not fully funded. If it were, we would not have, among other things: questionable hiring freezes in critical agencies; hundreds of thousands of people successfully crossing our borders illegally each year (with thousands who are caught then released because of inadequate detention space); state-of-the-art radiation detection equipment installed in only some border ports of entry; and virtually no homeland security presence in overseas visa screening.

Yet, we know little about whether the candidates seriously intend to increase homeland security funding, or where they would spend any increases. With the exception of the White House’s disavowal of a leaked fiscal 2006 budget planning document showing virtually no increases for homeland security, we know little about President Bush’s plans for a second term.

Sen. John Kerry has signaled his intention to substantially increase funding for first responders. This apparent emphasis on consequence management, rather than counterterrorism and prevention, merits debate. Is it an effort to attract traditionally unionized voters, or does it reflect an appropriate view of homeland security priorities? We do not know.

We also do not know what happened to Mr. Bush’s immigration reform proposal. Although one could argue with the outlines of that proposal, its homeland security rationale is unassailable: Even with significant increases in Border Patrol funding, we cannot readily detect and apprehend potential terrorists smuggled into the United States unless we also take steps to decrease substantially the people who try to enter the United States illegally each year. These steps could include increasing the annual ceiling on lawful Mexican immigration, creating a temporary worker program, deporting rather than releasing people who enter the country illegally, linking our economic aid to Mexico directly to its ability to exercise greater control over its southern and northern borders, and focusing our investigations on smugglers rather than domestic employers.

But there has been no debate on immigration reform. The president has not mentioned his proposal in months, nor pushed for legislation,though he was right to raise the issue.

Mr. Kerry suggests he will do more, but his proposals for “a limited number of temporary workers” and a generic pledge to “better control the borders” ring hollow.

In its section on “terrorist travel,” the September 11 panel identified an obvious disparity in our border security approaches to cargo and people. If we can collect information on shipping containers 24 hours before they are loaded on vessels destined for the United States, and put officers in overseas seaports to help inspect those containers, why are we not also working with air carriers to obtain passport data earlier in the travel process to perform “some screening… before a passenger departs on a flight destined for the United States”?

While the administration has already taken a very small step in this direction by posting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in one overseas airport as part of the Immigration Security Initiative, there has been no public indication if this initiative will expand or be funded at a level commensurate with that of its sister program, the Container Security Initiative. And federal regulations still require air carriers to transmit passport data to CBP after passenger boarding, rather than before.

Mr. Kerry does not even mention terrorist travel in his “Plan to Make American Stronger and Safer,” but he may have indirectly and belatedly endorsed predeparture passenger screening when he endorsed the September 11 commission recommendations. If this is an area where there is no significant policy disagreement, why haven’t the candidates or the commission called for action? We do not know.

These questions, and others like them, go to the heart of what our homeland security strategy should be for the next four years. But with less than three months until the election, and the entire country focused squarely on intelligence reform, we may never learn the answers.

Brian C. Goebel is former counselor and senior policy adviser to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner.

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