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Hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security Subject: Holding the Department of Homeland Security Accountable for Security Gaps

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


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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REP. THOMPSON: Thank you very much. We now yield five minutes to the gentlelady from the Virgin Islands, Ms. Christensen.

DEL. DONNA CHRISTENSEN (D-VI): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And welcome, Secretary. Before I ask a question, I just want to let you know that on a positive note that I see that we have an Office of Health Affairs. And we had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Runge a few months ago and see his mission and his jurisdiction becoming clearer, and they have good goals, measurable objectives. And while they have probably still a few vacancies, I think that if all of the other directorates and offices were, you know, were coming together like that, the department would really be in good shape.

That being said, I still have a health question. We had a hearing on May 15th where FEMA director, Mr. Paulison, was here. And the chairman asked him then about formaldehyde in travel trailers.

He had assured us at that hearing that there were no problems. Of course, now we know differently.

The committee also wrote to you recently asking if you planned on conducting a health assessment to determine whether or not the trailers are a problem and whether the people living in them are at risk.

Could you tell us what you've done on that or how you plan to ensure that the trailer occupants are safe?

SEC. CHERTOFF: Let me begin by saying, as I know you know, formaldehyde is a common building material. There probably is formaldehyde in the room here. And there is no -- somewhat to my surprise, there is no standard for the acceptable level of formaldehyde in travel trailers. People have drawn analogies based on OSHA and other standards. The doctors I've talked to say that's really an imperfect analogy. So we don't really have an actual standard.

We have asked the Center for Disease Control and EPA to put together a protocol to test and set a standard to determine what would be a safe level. But I didn't want to wait for the scientists, so I very clearly said a few weeks ago in New Orleans: If anybody is in a trailer and is concerned about formaldehyde, either because they are uncomfortable physically or because they're just anxious about it, we will get you out of the trailers no if's, and's or but's, and we'll put you some place else. We obviously have to find alternative housing. It might not happen immediately. Those who are in greater distress, if necessary, we'll put in a hotel.

We've got about a thousand people out of the total number that are left that are requested to be moved. Ironically, we've also got a significant number of people who asked if this meant they wouldn't be able to buy their trailer because they wanted to keep the trailer. For the time being, until we get a satisfactory scientific answer, we are not going to sell or give trailers away, and I think for this year we are not going to rely on trailers. I've always been skeptical about trailers as a -- certainly as a group housing solution, I think it's a very bad solution. So we're going to air on the side of safety here and look for alternative housing if people need to have that in the event of a catastrophe.

REP. CHRISTENSEN: Okay. But I do think that in addition to asking EPA and CDC to tell you what a safe level of formaldehyde might be, the CDC, through their Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, can do health assessments to see if there is a problem and then work backward from there. And I think that would be appropriate.

SEC. CHERTOFF: Well -- and we do have -- let me just -- to make clear, we have a 1-800 number where people can call up to get information, and if they have any question or concern about health, they get referred to a CDC person who will answer their questions and help them through the medical process.

REP. CHRISTENSEN: I mean, they're going to get --

REP. : Gentlelady, just for a brief comment, just for one -- a lot of people are -- some people have allergies, and the people that react to this have allergies.

REP. CHRISTENSEN: Okay.

When you did a -- I guess it was when you did your second stage review, you put TSA Border Patrol and ICE directly under you and your re-organization, and I had questions about that at that time.

Can you tell me how that has or has not improved their collaboration and their operation, and if you plan to continue that going forward, or is there -- are you planning to change that?

SEC. CHERTOFF: No. I think that's actually worked very well, and let me give you a couple of concrete examples.

First of all, we have created something called VIPER teams, which started out as a mobile TSA security unit, a quick-response team that we could use to do surged security operations, and it's worked so well that we've expanded it to have a DHS VIPER team. So we have Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard and TSA working together to put -- train and deploy mixed teams, depending on the particular environment.

We've done similar kind of cross-training and cross-exercising with respect to Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection at our seaports, where we literally have interoperability between Coast Guardsmen and Customs and Border Protection on inspections. All of this is part of a big element of what we're trying to do at the department, which is to build one DHS with interoperable elements.

Instead of having done away with this middle layer between the secretary and the deputy and the component heads, the way we work now is we have something we call the "gang of seven," which -- all the operating heads meet once a week, either with the deputy or with me, and we all discuss common policy issues and problems. And that is the way in which we actually make sure that the component heads are constantly talking to one another and we're getting the benefit of that collective wisdom.

So I have to say, I think this was a good thing. It flattened the organization, it actually promoted cross-fertilization, and more and more, we see the components themselves seeking out opportunities to plan and work together.

Last thing, if I can be real quick.

A big lesson for the Defense Department in Goldwater-Nichols was jointness. We have a management directive now that basically tells people who want to be SES that in order to make their application more attractive for Senior Executive Service, they should plan to spend a rotation out of their component either in a joint activity of the department or in another component to kind of build this sense of jointness. So this is what we're doing to kind of build that unity.

DEL. CHRISTENSEN: My time is up, I believe.

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