Senate Hearing: Terrorism Policy 7, Immigration Policy 1

By David North on April 22, 2010

There was an interesting and unconscious test of the attractions of immigration and terrorism policy yesterday on Capitol Hill.

Eight speakers attended a Senate hearing on "visa security"; seven of them spoke only, or almost only, on airports and terrorism; one (John McCain) spoke about illegal immigration. Given the duties of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, any of the eight could have spoken about either subject.

Bear in mind that while politicians may seem to have an ability to speak endlessly, this is not true in committee hearings. The opening statements of the administration officials are supposed to last only five minutes, and the senators, yesterday, were given seven minutes each to ask questions and hear answers. So we are dealing with a limited resource: the committee's time.

Presiding, for the most part, was the chair, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), and part of the time it was the ranking minority member, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Also present, for at least part of the time, were three other senators: McCain (R-AZ), Thomas Carper (D-DE), and George Voinovich (R-OH). Most of the members of the committee did not attend.

Representing the administration were three witnesses, all of whom work in both the immigration policy and counter-terrorism arenas: Janice L. Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs; David F. Heyman, Assistant Secretary for Policy, DHS; and Assistant DHS Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John T. Morton.

During the round of opening statements only terrorism, and what could be learned from the foiled Christmas Day attack on a plane approaching Detroit, were discussed. (My colleague Janice Kephart has explored some of these issues, here and here, among other places.) Sen. McCain was not yet in the room.

The senators were very interested in the Visa Security Units (VSUs) that Congress wanted set up in 57 embassies where the risk of encountering terrorists was judged to be above average. These are staffed, at least in part, by seasoned officers from ICE, but there are only 14 in being, and no more than five more scheduled in the immediate future. Why this gap?, the GOP senators asked.

It came out in the exchanges that in seven embassies the ambassadors objected to the VSUs for one reason or another, sometimes because of lack of office space. Apparently there was a problem of this kind in London, and Morton volunteered that he had flown to Great Britain and had solved it. For this he was congratulated by Sen. Lieberman, who complained that the VSUs were established by law, and the ambassadors had no right interfering with them.

The senators at the hearing showed detailed knowledge of some of the nuances of the policies under discussion. Sen. Collins was aware that one of the problems with the Christmas Day would-be bomber was that his name had been misspelled and was not noted in some computerized checking.

Ms. Jacobs then said that the department had since installed a bit of software that sorted out such misspellings and told its officers to use it routinely.

"You mean it is not an automatic part of the system, that some overworked officer might skip that step?", Sen. Collins said a bit sharply; she then mentioned how Google will routinely alert a user to other spellings if it looks as if the wrong spelling is being used.

Ms. Jacobs allowed that it was not yet automatic, and, pressed by the senator, said it would be soon, and she would so inform the committee when that was in place.

Sen. McCain used his time to ask Assistant Secretary Morton about immigration enforcement in his state; they agreed that about half of the DHS apprehensions of illegal immigrants nationwide took place in Arizona.

McCain pressed Morton on why the administration had asked for $53 million less for the removal of illegal aliens; he also asked about the success of a DHS effort called "Operation Streamline" which he and Morton discussed but neither described. (It is a program in some places along the border in which illegal border crossers are prosecuted and serve jail time before being returned across the border).

Morton said that Operation Streamline was largely a Border Patrol activity, and outside his realm.

There was also a discussion regarding the apparent relationship between the Mexico-based drug cartels and the alien-smuggling operations; the latter are not an integral part of the former, but often the human smugglers had to negotiate with the cartels which "controlled the channels."

And then it was back to the complexities of the "layered approaches" to countering terrorism, i.e., many processes, much training, and much technology.