For Obama's DHS, eight crucial issues

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VEDERYFollowing a campaign that did not include a serious discussion of either homeland security or travel issues, President Obama and his team now face the daunting task of managing the first presidential transition at the Department of Homeland Security.

Secretary Janet Napolitano and her incoming team have inherited the difficult homeland security decision-making process that requires undeniable trade-offs between security and privacy, security and mobility and security and federalism. Here are eight issues where the new administration will have to make tough choices during 2009:

US-Visit exit

With pressure from Congress on both sides, the outgoing DHS leadership did not enact final regulations to require collection of biometrics from departing foreign visitors. The DHS is planning several pilot programs to examine the cost and efficiency of three different collection points, but each (counter, checkpoint and gate) will require resources and cooperation from airports and airlines that have not been forthcoming.

With potentially qualified countries unable to be considered for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program after June 30, will a new administration fund a government-controlled exit program, force the private sector to handle the role or punt?

Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

Congress mandated, then delayed, a new requirement that U.S. and Canadian citizens have passport-quality documents to enter the U.S., but the delays have provided time for new passport cards and dual-use driver's licenses to be distributed to travelers and new document-reading infrastructure to be built.

While the Canadian and northern border angst seems to have subsided, will the new administration seek additional time beyond the June 30 WHTI deadline?

Registered Traveler

The outgoing Transportation Security Administration was unwilling to deploy a real Registered Travel program, where people who have gone through a security assessment would be provided a different physical security review when boarding an airplane. With more than 225,000 people signed up for RT and an increasing number of airports using the program, will the TSA be interested in risk management at the checkpoint, or will the fear of a "clean skin" terrorist mean RT can never be more than a front-of-the-line program? Additionally, will Customs and Border Protection and the TSA take the common-sense step to integrate domestic and international trusted traveler programs?

Real ID

States are required by the end of 2009 to meet minimum standards for issuing new driver's licenses to ensure that the documents are tamper-resistant, provided to legal residents and not issued multiple times in multiple states. Under current regulations, licenses issued by noncompliant states cannot be used to board flights after 2009. Congress to date has only provided a small percentage of the likely cost of meeting these federal mandates, and even a new appropriation in 2009 will arrive too late to help states meet the deadline. With state budgets under stress due to the economy, will the DHS or the Congress blink on the 2009 deadline?

CBP budget priorities

The tremendous buildup since 2005 at the Border Patrol, which has more than doubled in size, and in border fencing and infrastructure has taken up the lion's share of Customs and Border Protection money. Meanwhile, despite some minor increases, the funds to operate legal ports of entry have not been requested or provided to CBP. Infrastructure at ports of entry -- air, land and sea -- is expensive and not as politically valuable as the Border Patrol or a fence, and personnel increases have not kept up with increasing volumes of passenger and cargo traffic.

It appears the stimulus may include millions of dollars for infrastructure, but when the DHS engages Congress during the fiscal 2010 budget process, is there the will over the long term to redirect CBP money to encouraging legal commerce?

TSA unionization

Congressional Democrats have promised to push through legislation to allow TSA screeners to unionize. Most Republicans are expected to oppose the proposal. Where does the new DHS stand on this issue, and what do they take from the experiences of CBP in working with a unionized workforce at the airport?

Public diplomacy

"Smart power," the mantra of the Obama administration's foreign policy, does not yet appear to include improving the process by which would-be international travelers apply for admission to the U.S.

Despite recent improvements in some key markets, visa wait times remain stubbornly high, especially for scientists and people from high-risk countries. Will the DHS and the Department of State implement proposals from the 2008 Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee to make the visa process more transparent and quicker for applicants?

Transportation beyond aviation

The TSA was created with a statutory mission to secure all modes of transportation, yet the overwhelming share of resources since 2002 has gone to aviation measures. Terror attacks on rail, mass transit, bus and ferry systems in other countries clearly indicate the threat, but will the DHS continue to advocate that aviation security is the highest and most effective priority use of federal dollars?

As long as the threat of terrorism remains real, the securing of our transportation and travel systems will be a major national priority.

How the Obama administration answers the eight questions above will provide real insight into how it intends to handle this daunting task.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr. served as assistant secretary for Homeland Security for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning from 2003 to 2005. He is partner and founder of the Monument Policy Group LLC, whose clients have included the U.S. Travel Association and the National Business Travel Association. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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