Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 9, 2006

House hearing makes the case for the WHTI

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 9, 2006

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing yesterday on the topic of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) that emphasized the security imperatives of the WHTI and focused on the need to stick to the Congressionally-mandated deadlines for WHTI travel documents. Witnesses at the hearing were former 9/11 Commission staffer Janice Kephart, former Canadian intelligence official David Harris, Paul Rosenzweig from DHS, and Roger Dow from the Travel Industry Association of America. (Links go to their prepared testimony). The Globe and Mail published a story today that summarizes some of the discussion from the hearing, much of which apparently focused on the strength of the terrorist presence in Canada; statements by the chair of the subcommittee, Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN), were rebuked by Canadian officials today. Hostettler also vowed to stick to the current WHTI deadlines – a statement that sets up a showdown between the House and the Senate in the conference for the immigration and border security bill, since the Senate’s version of the bill includes an amendment that extended the WHTI deadline by six months.

The most interesting document emerging from the hearing is Kephart’s testimony, which offers a tour de force argument supporting the goals of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (which emerged directly from her work with the 9/11 Commission). She distills the imperative for effective border security in two succinct paragraphs:

We must treat our borders as they truly are: as a marker of U.S. sovereign rights to assure that people who seek to come here are who they say they are, and will not cause a public safety or terrorist threat to American citizens. At the border, the passport is the manner in which we as a nation can better assure that the people who seek to come here do so for legitimate reasons. A top priority in all we do in border security must then be to assure practical, on the ground, security measures at our ports of entry and physical borders.

However, let me be clear: we need not give up privacy nor give up commerce to attain border security. In fact, with efficient and streamlined security, privacy and commerce are both enhanced. People and goods that should make it through the system in an efficient manner are more likely to be when the acceptable forms of travel documents go from dozens to one, and trusted or registered traveler/commercial programs augment the system as also being acceptable as an alternate to a federally issued travel document.

She also goes into some depth on the nature of the terrorist threat in the Americas, looking at countries Canada, South America, and the Caribbean. And she argues strongly that Congress should not extend the implementation deadline for WHTI.

I generally agree with her threat assessments, and her arguments in favor of border security generally and the need for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative are persuasive. But I’m concerned about how the implementation of WHTI is proceeding, and worried that we’re moving to a point where it’s going to be implemented poorly, which would probably be a worse outcome than an extension of the deadline.

Of course, an extension is no guarantee of improved performance, and many of the current worries about WHTI arise from policy issues, not inherent challenges with implementation; for example, disputes over the technologies and business model for the PASS cards. DHS and State need to work closely with each other, the northern border states, and the Canadian government to hammer out these unresolved issues soon, so that they can meet these deadlines in a way that improves security without severely damaging cross-border travel and trade.

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