Something interesting is going on in Janet Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security. For the first two-plus years of the Obama administration, Secretary Napolitano’s priority was to plug security vulnerabilities, real or perceived. Arguments that her department was also responsible for encouraging trade and travel, and that security measures should therefore be carefully risk-targeted, were received with minimal enthusiasm.
The best example of this is the issue of “pre-clearance” of passengers and goods coming to the United States. “Pre-clearance” means that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are stationed in foreign countries, and carry out the entry checks before the passengers board the plane or, in the case of Canada and Mexico, just before the cars reach the physical border. Pre-clearance facilitates travel and trade by removing passengers and goods from the often lengthy waits they would otherwise face upon arrival in the United States.
CBP has never much liked pre-clearance, however. There are currently pre-clearance facilities in major Canadian airports and in several small Caribbean nations. The last expansion of the program was to Ireland in 1986. The big concern has been arrest authority; CBP has feared that, because it would lack the power to arrest and detain individuals on foreign soil, pre-clearance could be exploited by terrorists looking to “probe” for U.S. weaknesses by attempting entry and then withdrawing if they could not pass inspection.
The Canadians have long pushed for expanded pre-clearance at the land borders, to no avail. Efforts during the Bush administration to negotiate a pilot pre-clearance facility at the busy Peace Bridge crossing at Buffalo foundered in 2007 over security concerns. And as recently as February 2011, Secretary Napolitano stated emphatically during a congressional hearing that the issue would not be reconsidered: “We have looked into pre-clearance on the Canadian side. We cannot do it…We understand the importance of the span for trade and tourism and so forth. But we are not going to be able to resolve the pre-clearance issues in Canada.”
But lo and behold last week, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled the new “Beyond the Border” initiative to improve security and facilitate cross-border travel between the two countries. Among the new commitments: “A comprehensive approach to pre-clearance and pre-inspection covering all modes of cross-border trade and travel.”
And last week at my organization, the Council on Foreign Relations, Napolitano enthusiastically talked up a new agreement reached this month with the United Arab Emirates to begin pre-clearance for U.S.-bound travelers from the airport in Abu Dhabi. Those passengers will be cleared for U.S. entry before departure, and thus get to avoid the long inspection lines at Dulles, JFK and other big U.S. airports. In other words, not only has Napolitano shed her concerns over pre-clearance, she is now willing to extend it to an Arab ally for this first time (even though, as will surely be noted, six of the 19 9/11 hijackers came to the United States on flights from nearby Dubai International Airport).
She called the deals part of “a new paradigm in how our country engages with our foreign partners, an engagement driven by the mutual opportunity to enhance security and to promote economic benefits at the same time.” Asked about the previous security concerns over pre-clearance, she said they could be dealt with through information-sharing and cooperation with close allies.
Let me be clear – I am an enthusiastic proponent of expanded pre-clearance, and I have long believed that the security risks were vastly over-stated. Pre-clearance is one of many intelligent risk-management tools that can ease travel and trade without raising security risks. What is interesting now is that Napolitano’s DHS has reached the same conclusion. Here I can only speculate that two things have changed: first, the secretary is confident that the security measures her department has put in place are not only robust but also able to withstand political scrutiny from the Hill; and secondly that, with President Obama’s focus on job creation, every department, including DHS, must now take seriously the goal of removing obstacles to economic growth.
Whatever the reasons, these are encouraging developments, and hopefully a sign of more to come.