The Corner

The Homeland-Security Cup Filleth Over

Last week, I talked to Matt Mayer about Arizona’s new immigration law. Mayer, who is now president of the Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio, worked at the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration and wrote a book about it (Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America Outside the Beltway)while a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. With DHS issues all over the news this weekend, I checked back in with him briefly this afternoon.

Q: What do you make of the Times Square attack?

A: This terrorist incident is another reminder that the threat we face is real. It also demonstrates the importance of vigilance on the part of citizens. Our best chance of success to detect and prevent a terrorist attack rests with states and localities and the men and women who are closest to the threat. Equally critical is that we focus our finite resources on high-risk areas like New York City and stop the pork-barrel federal grants that send money to low-risk places like Omaha, Nebraska.

Q: Is that unfair to Omaha, considering that the Oklahoma City bombing was not in the Big Apple? Couldn’t it have been Omaha?

A: Other than five terrorist attacks since 1995, al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda sympathetic terrorist attacks outside of Afghanistan and Iraq have occurred in cities of 500,000 people or more. It’s always a possibility that a strike could happen in a smaller city, but with finite resources (money, people, and time), we must focus on where the attack is most likely to occur. 

Q: Is it as nutty as it seems that Janet Napolitano is a key point-person for the oil spill, the Times Square car bomb, and the borders?

A: Yes. The Department of Homeland Security was established after the September 11 attack to make sure we didn’t get hit again by terrorists, or, if we did, we responded effectively and minimized the loss of life and property. The last week demonstrates the problem with a department so big and with so many missions that it is involved with virtually everything that occurs in the United States, especially as the Federal Emergency Management Agency federalizes every flood, tornado, fire, and storm — disasters that, from 1787 to 1992, did not involve federal entities.

From my time at DHS inside the secretary’s office, I can tell you that the mice are in total panic mode and scurry here, there, and everywhere trying to keep track of what is happening in Arizona, the Gulf Coast, and now New York City — not to mention making sure the system remains focused on the continuing threat of a new attack. I refer to it as the “crisis du month” — it is exhausting, expands resources needed for the primary mission of DHS, and results in a poor response (see Hurricane Katrina).

Fundamentally, DHS officials shouldn’t be involved in the Gulf Coast above the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. In New York City, the primary role is for the NYPD and the FBI — DHS has little to no role to play, as it is a forensic investigation. Arizona is only on the radar screen because the federal government has not secured the border (Custom and Border Protection) or enforced existing laws (Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Citizenship and Immigration Services) to the extent necessary to give Arizonans (and Americans) the confidence not to take action into their own, constitutionally permissible hands.

Mayer gets into all of this in much more detail in his book, Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America Outside the Beltway.

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