Napolitano Hearing: Poor Counterterrorism On Display

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee last week provided more than one example of poor counterterrorism and security thinking. But it wasn’t the secretary missing the mark; it was her interlocutors.

First up: Rep. Peter King (R-NY). A New York Times editorial Saturday points out what is at best a gaffe and at worst counterterrorism malpractice from King, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Questioning Secretary Napolitano, King said:

I … notice in your prepared testimony the word “terrorism” is not even used. And I know your absolute commitment to fighting terrorism. I know the president’s commitment to that, and the chairman’s as well.

But I think it’s important for us in positions of leadership to constantly remind people how real that threat is and how it’s an ongoing threat, and if we don’t do it, it’s going to be harder for us to get legislative support for the measures that we think have to be taken.

King is dead wrong, and shamefully so for a person who is supposed to be a leader on domestic security issues.

The government should constantly work to prevent terror threats from materializing, but leadership should not be constantly reminding people about the threats. Leadership should share information dispassionately, and any warnings should be to help Americans secure themselves and the country, not to help drive legislation through Congress.

Terrorism works by inducing overreaction on the part of the victim state. Hyping threats helps terrorism do this work. King’s approach would continue to make the United States a volunteer victim of the terrorism strategy.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) said correctly to Napolitano, “I think your role is to prepare, not scare, the American people.”

Second example: the fantastical misunderstanding of our national ID law exhibited by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). Asking Secretary Napolitano about REAL ID, he said:

[T]he Real ID Act has been one of the most critical parts of the ability to do intel tracking. If you don’t know who the person is, if you can’t sort that basic thing out, it’s impossible to get good identification of who — who they’re hooking up with, who — who needs to be monitored for what risk level.

Nobody’s extemporaneous speech ever perfectly reflects their thinking, but Souder appears to believe that REAL ID is designed to provide real-time intelligence. It is designed to do quite a bit less, and would fail at that.

REAL ID would put all Americans into a national ID system and make data about them available for sharing across a network of databases. Over time, it would lead to increased government collection of data about all our movements as we would be asked more and more often to swipe or scan our nationally uniform ID cards.

For all this surveillance of law-abiding citizens, REAL ID would not reveal who terrorists are, nor would it effectively suppress illegal immigration. It holds no hope for defeating the practice of using “clean-skin” terrorists (which was the modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks, with two exceptions). And it would drive illegal immigrants further underground, converting them from hard-working people who have committed minor civil law violations into members of a criminal underclass.

The only way REAL ID could be used for “intel tracking” is if it were required for access to telecommunications, financial services, transportation, and so on. Rep. Souder may imagine a future where REAL ID can do that, but it’s a dystopian future where Orwell’s 1984 has turned from fictional warning to accurate prediction.

These Members of Congress are not acquitting themselves well on counterterrorism and on security generally. Considering that they are members of the committee with a significant chunk of jurisdiction over these issues, they don’t inspire confidence in political leadership generally.