Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff this week gave a well-publicized speech on the year ahead for 2008.

Most interesting in the Secretary’s speech were his uncommonly candid criticisms of groups that he says have made it difficult for the federal government to implement an effective homeland security strategy. He doesn’t hold back, taking aim at: Congress, state governments and private industry.

“I am sometimes asked why it is that for 30 years we seem to have trouble in the United States enforcing the rules against illegal immigration. And I’ll tell you what the answer is,” Chertoff says. “The answer is that when the television cameras turn off and the spotlight moves to something else, there are a host of interest groups and advocacy groups who work very, very hard to make it difficult to enforce these rules. I’m not commenting adversely on their motivation, but I can tell you the effect of all of this is to wear down the ability of an agency to enforce the law.”

Chertoff then proceeds to explain himself. He opens by criticizing industries that have opposed the Department’s efforts to criminalize the hiring of illegal aliens, using Social Security No-Match records as the key resource for identifying employees who may not be legal. He singles out the state of Illinois, which as sued the Department: “We currently have a lawsuit against the state of Illinois seeking to strike down legislation that the state put into effect that actually would have made it virtually impossible for employers on a voluntary basis to subscribe to our e-Verify program. We don’t necessarily require that states and localities enlist in helping us do our job enforcing the law, but we sure are going to tell them, don’t stand in our way when we try to do our job.”

Chertoff also went after states that have opposed the Real ID act: “I have yet to hear a persuasive argument for why it is a good thing for privacy to have driver’s licenses that are easily forged or counterfeited. I have yet to have anybody explain to me why I’m better off as a citizen if a 16-year-old kid in a college town can take my identify, phony up a driver’s license, and pretend to be me. It seems to me that driver’s licenses which are secure, which are issued on a basis that has appropriate underlying documents, and which cannot be counterfeited, is not only good for security, but it’s good for privacy for every American citizen who wants to be able to safeguard their own identity against identity thieves.”

The Secretary couldn’t help but take a gentle swipe at the media as well, noting the lack of interest in how well the peak travel periods came off this year: “If there had been a lot of long lines and complaining passengers, I guarantee we would have seen a lot of news media attention. But there was comparatively little to the absence of complaining in long lines, and I think that’s a tribute to our TSA screening work force.”

Finally, the Secretary also expressed his disappointment that Congress failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform when the opportunity came this year: “And I have to say candidly, we missed a critical opportunity, not through lack of effort but through lack of result, to implement a comprehensive solution to a decades-old problem that we know cannot simply be solved by enforcement. Unquestionably, enforcement is a critical element and a foundation to solving the problem, but it is not, at the end of the day, the complete solution.”

He also highlighted one of the most challenging obstacles to creating a more effective and manageable Department of Homeland Security — the undisciplined, sprawling and unmanageable oversight function of Congress when it comes to the Department:

“Our main authorizing appropriating committees have the responsibility and the jurisdiction to work with us to assess and analyze those trade-offs, but when you have 80 or so other committees, each of which has a narrow slice of jurisdiction that also seeks to have input into how we prioritize and how we make trade-offs, then you have a recipe for conflicting direction and constant fighting about who controls jurisdiction over what part of my agency,” said Chertoff. “This, to be honest, is part of the reason we have seen a lot of organizational churn at DHS over the last year. Every committee feels it wants to put its own imprint on the department. My plead stays for Congress to streamline its oversight.”

Conspicuously absent from his comments on 2007 was a reference to the disastrous mandate passed by Congress, and signed by the President, requiring every single cargo container bound for the United States by physically scanned. Chertoff and most of the homeland security community, as well as independent experts, have roundly criticized the mandate as unrealistic and actually something that will harm the nation’s security because it will deflect resources from better-prove risk analysis techniques.

Ironically, Chertoff was introduced by 9/11 Commission Co-Chair Lee Hamilton. The irony is that, in the 9/11 Report, the Commission called for improved port security via layered security and risk analysis — not narrow approaches such scanning 100 percent of all cargo, which wastes the resources of law enforcement in going after cargo known to be secure and tipping off the terrorists as to how best to exploit our border security. Despite this, Congress rammed the mandate through by claiming it was what the 9/11 Commission stipulated. The Commission, in fact, called for the exact opposite approach.

Looking forward, Chertoff laid out the following issues as the top homeland security issues for 2008:

  • Immigration and border security
  • Scure identification
  • Cyber security
  • Continuation of our efforts to institutionalize the department’s functions
  • He also highlighted, to lesser extent, the issues of domestic radicalization, emergency preparedness and response, and critical infrastructure.
Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More