- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Senators from both parties yesterday challenged the Department of Homeland Security on whether it is moving quickly enough to secure the nation’s borders and following through on congressional mandates to better track visitors’ comings and goings.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, was dismayed by the acknowlegment that the administration may ask for another delay in requiring new biometric passports from countries whose citizens don’t have to obtain visas to visit the United States, calling it “the soft underbelly of our nation’s immigration system.” Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said the administration hasn’t provided any regular updates on progress as Congress mandated.

Meanwhile, one witness told the joint immigration and terrorism subcommittees of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the department’s front-line officers are slipping back to old practices that were focused on processing people quickly, rather than on security.

“It was a customer-oriented system before on the front lines. It is becoming, from what I understand, a customer-oriented system again,” said Janice L. Kephart, a former September 11 commission staff member who is now a senior consultant at the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

Ms. Kephart also questioned whether the structure of the department allowed immigration security enough attention. “Although we’re talking a very good talk right now about border security being national security, we have it buried in DHS,” she said.

But department officials said they are taking the necessary steps, both in training and technology and in resources at the border.

“My instincts tell me we’ve never paid more attention to our borders than we pay now,” said Thomas J. Walters, assistant commissioner for training and development at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “If we’re not there yet, we’re on our way.”

Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning, said the department is doing its best to have “a balanced process” between protecting the borders and not interfering with commerce and visitors’ travel.

Ms. Dezenski said the department’s new training program is putting visa security officers out in the field, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia, per Congress’ direction. She also said the department has integrated many of the terrorist watch-list databases that used to be controlled by one agency or another and not shared among all law enforcement.

But she couldn’t say the agency turf wars have been resolved.

“I think it’s gotten better. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say everyone’s in perfect harmony,” she said.

Ms. Dezenski told the panel the department probably won’t make this October’s deadline for requiring biometric data on passports from visa-waiver countries, prompting Mrs. Feinstein to warn she may try to block the administration from asking for another extension into 2006.

The visa-waiver program allows citizens of certain countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. After September 11, 2001, Congress insisted that visa-waiver countries issue machine-readable passports with biometric information to help ensure the passport holder is who he claims to be, and set an October 2004 deadline for implementation.

The administration won a one-year delay, but now Ms. Dezenski said the department is having trouble choosing and placing the machines to read the new passports, and only two of the 27 countries in the program are on track to issue the passports by the deadline.

In response, Mrs. Feinstein said she had personally stalled until the last minute the last request for an extension, and is prepared to block it again if the administration doesn’t work harder to meet the deadline.

“I will do the same thing in this session if it doesn’t get done,” she said. “I truly believe this is a dominant weakness.”

She also asked for a list of countries that are delinquent, and said it may be time to consider eliminating them from the visa-waiver program.

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