House grills Chertoff on DHS changes

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House lawmakers today applauded the Homeland Security Department’s proposed move to risk-based decision-making but decried its lack of progress on improving transportation security and other security issues.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff fielded questions from the House Homeland Security Committee about the results Chertoff announced yesterday of a stem-to-stern review of DHS operations.

Started in March and completed last month, the review proposes reorganizing the department according to six priorities:

* increase preparedness

* strengthen border security and reforming immigration

* harden transportation security while maintaining mobility

* improve information sharing, particularly with state, local and private sector partners

* improve DHS management and spending, particularly on IT

* consolidate agencies and functions to maximize mission performance

“The proposed management and other reforms will move the department in the right direction,” said Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.). He asked Chertoff to connect DHS’ future budget priorities to the six items.

While the proposal does contain several important improvements, “it does not address the department’s most serious defects,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s ranking Democratic member. Democrats on the committee released their own report today detailing where they saw Chertoff’s proposal fell short.

Chertoff received universal approval for increasing the authority of the department’s cybersecurity chief. Under the plan, a new assistant secretary for cyber and telecom security would oversee protecting the nation’s digital infrastructure. The committee and industry representatives had worked since 2003 to give the cybersecurity czar more muscle.

The lawmakers also praised Chertoff for adding a requirement to collect 10 fingerprints from participants in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, which screens foreign nationals entering and exiting the country to weed out potential terrorists.

First-time participants will have to give 10 fingerprints as a biometric identifier. On subsequent visits, they can give two fingerprints as they currently do. Collecting more prints will make the system more accurate, the committee said.

Chertoff also received support for his creation of a chief intelligence officer responsible for managing the collection, analysis and sharing of all intelligence the department acquires. The committee called for DHS to improve its information sharing, both internally and with federal, state, local and private sector partners.

The plan lacks any mention of improving interoperable communications among first responders, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said. The country still lacks a nationwide integrated system that allows different emergency and law enforcement bodies to communicate, she said.

DHS needs to create new standards and move forward technologically to bridge legacy communication systems, Chertoff said.

Harman also wanted to know when DHS would produce an integrated national vulnerability assessment. DHS is working on it and is employing sophisticated computer models at national labs, Chertoff said.

Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) asked Chertoff what the Transportation Security Administration, one of the department’s most troubled agencies, would look like in five years. The agency will use next-generation technology to more effectively leverage its abilities, Chertoff said.

TSA will have more efficient passenger screening programs that will rely on more specific data to cut down on the number of unnecessary inspections, Chertoff said. TSA will also use more advanced video cameras and sensors to detect threats, he said.

Citing the bombings in London last week, “rail security has to be a priority even if TSA has to be reorganized to do it,” Thompson said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be combined to improve their efficiency, he added.

Lawmakers also criticized Chertoff for being more than three months late in delivering a comprehensive transit protection plan. Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) said it was "outrageous" that DHS is still not screening cargo carried on passenger planes. Chertoff did not say when they could expect it.

In related news, the Associated Press reported that Jeffrey Runge will resign as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to become DHS’ first chief medical officer. Chertoff announced the creation of the post to help address biological and chemical terrorism issues.


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