HEARING OF THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON HOMELAND SECURITY
SUBJECT: HOLDING THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY ACCOUNTABLE FOR SECURITY GAPS
CHAIRED BY: BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS)
WITNESS: MICHAEL CHERTOFF, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
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The chair now recognizes the ranking member of the full committee, the gentleman from New York, Mr. King, for an opening statement. Mr. King.
REP. PETER KING (R-NY): Thank you, Chairman Thompson. I appreciate you calling this meeting -- this hearing.
I certainly want to thank Secretary Chertoff for testifying once again and at the outset to commend him, I believe, for the job that he has done in providing leadership for the Department of Homeland Security, a position which is more important than ever when we see, again, what happened last night and this morning in Germany with the arrests of the three terrorists, alleged terrorists; with the arrests yesterday in Denmark; with the indictment recently of the University of South Florida students in South Carolina; this past summer, with the JFK plot; and the constant shadow that's out there and the fact that earlier this summer Secretary Chertoff, even though he took flak for it, was sending a very clear signal to the American people and to the world that there are dangerous situations going on. And I believe the events of the last several weeks have certainly justified the warnings that you gave us at that time.
I also, both as ranking member but also at a parochial level, want to thank Secretary Chertoff for the grant distributions this year. Certainly -- especially with the funding that came from the supplemental, I believe that you really have the department on course right now to provide the funding to the areas that need it the most and are able to make the best use of it. So I commend you for that.
I also, on a personal level, want to thank you for the cooperation that your staff has given me as far as whenever we reach out to you to get details as to different events that are going on. You know, the briefings and the data and the information and the intelligence you can provide to you has been very helpful in keeping me up to date.
Now, we did pass H.R. 1, and it passed, I believe, with the support of every member of this committee. Chairman Thompson did a very good job, I believe, in consolidating support, mobilizing support and getting very much into that bill.
One concern I do have, though -- and it predates Chairman Thompson and it's probably going to be with us somewhere into the future, hopefully not forever -- and that's the idea of consolidating jurisdiction of this committee over the Department of Homeland Security. Several months ago -- I guess it was on May 25th -- as ranking member, I, along with, I believe, all of the Republican members of the committee, sent a letter to you asking you to specify the number of hearings -- committee hearings, subcommittee hearings -- that you have to attend, that members of your department have to attend, the myriad of committees and subcommittees who claim jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.
Yesterday, you responded to that letter, in a letter dated September 4th, 2007, where you laid out again the really almost excruciating detail of the amount of time that must be spent testifying.
Now, I agree with Chairman Thompson. We have to have strong oversight. And I believe that for the department to go forward, and it is going forward under your leadership, to go forward effectively, there has to be strong oversight, constant oversight. That's just the way the system works.
However, having this multitude of oversight committees, committees claiming oversight, I believe, becomes very counterproductive. And I would hope that as we do go forward, no matter which party happens to be in control at the time, that whether we do it through House rules or we do it through legislation, that we do consolidate as much jurisdiction as possible into one committee. I'm not saying this is part of a turf battle. I'm just saying it as a sense of organization, a sense of responsibility, that we get that done.
So I would ask, Mr. Chairman, if I could introduce into the record a letter from the ranking member and the Republican members of the committee to the secretary, dated May 25th, and Secretary Chertoff's response to us, dated September 4th, 2007, and ask they be made a part of the record.
REP. THOMPSON: Without objection.
REP. KING: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Also, Secretary Chertoff, one issue which we've had some disagreement on but the fact is Congress has spoken or not spoken, and that's on the issue of immigration. And I -- from what I can see certainly in the last month, the department has dramatically increased enforcement. Also it's going forward with the construction of the fence along the border at a far more rapid pace than before.
And in your testimony, as you go forward, I would ask if you could just give some more details on that, as to what the intent of the department is as far as completing the fence, whether or not it's going to be 370 or whether it's going to be 700, and also what timetable you have for that. Also the impact of the recent court ruling on the employers and Social Security and illegal immigrants -- if you could update us on that, as to the impact you think it's going to have with that, I look forward to your testimony.
I look forward to your testimony and I want to again thank Chairman Thompson. Whatever disagreements we may have on particular issues, the fact is the committee is working in a very strong, bipartisan way under his leadership. And I think this hearing is going to be indicative of that. With that, I yield back the balance of my time.
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I now yield to the ranking member for any questions he might have.
REP. KING: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, one integral part of H.R. 1 was the form of the Visa Waiver Program. And as I understand the provisions we adopted, it was to permit you to waive the visa refusal rate requirements for participating countries, provided that the U.S. exit -- US-VISIT exit system for air travel was implemented with a 97 percent rate of accuracy and to verify the departure of international travelers.
What's the status of that?
Can you give us a timeline? And any other comments you have on the visa waiver program, especially since -- based on what happened in Germany and Denmark in the last two days.
SEC. CHERTOFF: Well, let me begin by saying that I think what happened in Germany and Denmark and what happened in the United Kingdom earlier this summer underscores what we've been saying, I think, for some time, that the Visa Waiver Program -- while a, you know, wonderful program for the vast majority of people from the -- visa waiver countries who are -- just want to come in here -- want to just come here for tourism purposes or benign purposes -- does open a vulnerability because by eliminating the visa process we lose one of the barriers to terrorists or criminals that we would otherwise have. It means we first encounter the person when they arrive here in the U.S. as opposed to encountering them in a consulate overseas.
What the legislation this Congress passed does that's very important is it allows us to put in to place what we call an electronic travel authorization program. That's a program in which everybody, even from a Visa Waiver Program, will submit some information on-line electronically in advance of travel. If we determine that someone needs to be interviewed because they're a potential threat, we can direct them to get interviewed at a consulate. And the vast majority will then have an authorization to travel over a period of time, whether it be a year or two years. It will not be particularly difficult or inconvenient because you can sign up for the program, and then you'll have an authorization that'll last for an extended period of time. But it will give us something that we haven't had up to now with the Visa Waiver Program, which is an advanced ability to check people who want to come into the United States, and I think that as we see the enemy trying to exploit connections in places like Western Europe to build a network of operatives, we have to make sure we stay ahead of that.
With respect to US-VISIT exit, we later this year will issue a proposed regulation that will cover putting in US-VISIT exit at airports. That will -- there's obviously under the law a certain required period of time for notice and comment, but our plan is to begin the process of implementation next year and to have it completed by the end of next year, 2008. It's a really simple process as far as airports are concerned. It simply requires taking the existing fingerprint readers that we have and deploying them at kiosks or at check-in counters for people who leave the country, so that instead of merely swiping their passport, which is what they do now, they also put their finger down there.
I'm going to be honest and tell you the airline industry is going to baulk at this; they're not going to be happy about it because they're going to worry that it's an additional requirement or that there's going to be a line or something of that sort. And so I think it's going to be one of these issues that's going to test our commitment to security. Are we prepared to take what I think is really a minor inconvenience to give us a real picture of who's leaving the country, or are we going to back down in the face of the fact that people are going to say, well, it's inconvenient?
We're committed to getting it done, and I appreciate this Congress' support for that effort.
REP. KING: Mr. Secretary, one piece of legislation, which Chairman Thompson and I had sponsored separately and then it became part of H.R. 1, was on the (PACS ?) Act, which basically encourages and allows cooperation between the U.S. and our closest allies as far as perfecting technology -- Israel, Britain, Singapore, Australia, I know, among four of the countries that are mentioned.
Could you tell the committee what steps are being taken to accelerate that level of cooperation and exactly -- you know, what you have in place and how you see that going forward?
SEC. CHERTOFF: I think it's very important -- a very important measure, Congressman King, because I think it not only allows us to get the benefit and share the benefit of technology with our close allies, but it also builds strong relationships. I can tell you that we are working now with the British on ways in which we can further enhance technological exchanges of information as well as general information exchange. I recently signed an agreement with the Israelis under which we are going to be able to work to get the benefit of one of their expertise, as well as giving them the benefit of some of our expertise.
So working with our Science and Technology Directorate, we look to continuing to accelerate the pace of this kind of information and technology exchange with our friends overseas.
REP. KING: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
I yield back.
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