Obama Charts Subtler Course On Homeland Security

President Obama had not dedicated a lot of time to speaking publicly about homeland security. i i

President Obama had not dedicated a lot of time to speaking publicly about homeland security. He didn't mention the term "homeland security" once when he addressed Congress in February, nor did it come up much in other major speeches or news conferences. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
President Obama had not dedicated a lot of time to speaking publicly about homeland security.

President Obama had not dedicated a lot of time to speaking publicly about homeland security. He didn't mention the term "homeland security" once when he addressed Congress in February, nor did it come up much in other major speeches or news conferences.

AP

Before a Nigerian man allegedly attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, President Obama had not dedicated a lot of time to speaking publicly about homeland security.

He didn't mention the term "homeland security" once when he addressed Congress in February, nor did it come up much in other major speeches or news conferences.

But after last week's attack on a Northwest Airlines jet bound for Detroit, Obama emerged from his Hawaii vacation to order urgent reviews of aviation screening technology and procedures, and of how U.S. terrorism watch lists work. Preliminary reports on both topics are due Thursday.

"It's also my job to ensure that our intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security systems and the people in them are working effectively and held accountable," Obama said Tuesday during one of two public appearances on the failed attack.

Low-Key Approach

Obama's remarks followed several days of Republican criticism that the president was not engaged enough after the attempted attack.

But Obama's approach to homeland security has been consistently low key, starting in the presidential campaign and running through his first year in office.

Part of the reason, of course, is that the White House, along with most Americans, has been much more consumed by the nation's troubled economy, high unemployment and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama's relative silence on homeland security also stems from his predecessor's heavy focus on the topic.

During his presidential campaign, Obama criticized the approach of the George W. Bush administration — which created the Department of Homeland Security as a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks — as efforts "to scare Americans without telling them what to be scared of, or what to do."

In 2007, Obama pledged that his homeland security strategy would be guided by managing risk. Much of the work done during his administration has been to refine and advance efforts that had been started during the Bush years.

"The fact that Obama has not been giving speeches with lots of platitudes in them doesn't immediately suggest that he isn't taking it seriously," says Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general at the U.S. Transportation Department. "I am hoping it means he understands it is a law enforcement issue."

Maintaining Some Bush-Era Policies

Much of the Obama administration's early efforts in homeland security were focused on fixing problems with disaster relief efforts that were exposed by the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

When it came to the counterterrorism side, Obama disappointed many of his liberal backers by supporting the Patriot Act and calling for the renewal of some controversial provisions, including ones that allow the seizure of certain business records and the monitoring of so-called lone wolf terrorists. But his stance pleased many security experts.

"The most important thing is that they have not curtailed or even attempted to curtail the full implementation of the Patriot Act," says Tom Blank, a former senior TSA official during the Bush years. "It is in place and operating much as it was during the last administration."

The Obama administration also allocated some $2.8 billion in stimulus funds for the Department of Homeland Security to fund projects such as construction at land border posts and new explosives detection and screening equipment for airports.

"There has been a good focus on understanding the importance of shifting resources on the borders," says Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Snafus In The White House's Agenda

Not everything has gone smoothly. The Obama White House has been eager to push more aggressive efforts to protect the nation's computer networks from online hackers and other attacks, but it named its first cybersecurity coordinator only last week.

Filling other key homeland security positions has also taken longer than expected. The officials that Obama named to lead two key agencies — the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — are still awaiting confirmation in the Senate.

A final vote on the TSA nominee, Erroll Southers, is being held up by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint from South Carolina over concerns that Southers would allow TSA employees to participate in collective bargaining.

Another, more partisan area has been illegal immigration, where Obama has taken steps to reverse some Bush-era rules that have been criticized as overly harsh. The changes included tailoring workplace raids to target employers rather than workers, and expanding humanitarian-release rules to prevent children from being separated from parents detained on immigration charges.

"In some places, we have taken a step backward on enforcement, including on illegal immigration and visa over-stayers," Mayer says. "We are back to a de facto catch-and-release program, rather than detain-and-remove."

But immigration advocates are pushing the White House to go even further, and there is speculation that the Obama administration will push Congress to pass a broad immigration overhaul next year — a debate that is bound to provoke a political battle to rival the one over health care.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.