When Christian Beckner unplugged from Homeland Security Watch, which he created and led, he called on some of us to maintain the blog. His are big shoes to fill. My name is Jonah Czerwinski and I will be one of the many required to pick up where Christian left off. More about my background will follow shortly. In the meantime, on with the Watch:
House Homeland Chairman Outlines Committee Priorities
During a luncheon discussion today Congressman Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, offered a glimpse of what will populate his Committeeâ€™s agenda for the 110th. Jointly hosted by the Homeland Security Policy Institute and The Aspen Institute , the luncheon was an opportunity for Chairman Thompson to introduce what he calls a â€œReal Deal for Homeland Security.â€ His prepared remarks can now be found on the Committee website, but there are some points he highlighted â€“ and even added â€“ during his delivery before a few dozen HLS wonks:
Mass transit. Chairman Thompson said to look for legislation next month aimed at strengthening mass transit security. In his remarks, he listed a few demands that legislation will likely include: vulnerability assessments, information sharing measures, and security training programs, among others.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita represent a failure that should never be repeated, he said, but they also revealed equities that need better Congressional support. He called out the National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard for special attention and suggested the two need better federal support. The USCG Deepwater Project must be fully funded. That was not in the prepared remarks.
FEMA reorganization is unfinished. Chairman Thompson characterized efforts to reorient FEMA as insufficient. The audience was given the impression that current plans fall short of a solution to prevent the kind of under-performance witnessed in the Gulf Coast.
Other aspects of the Department are due for â€œaggressive oversight.â€ The Chairman identified both the DHS Management and S&T Directorates as needing scrutiny in three areas: leadership, mission, and accounting. Both the House Homeland Security and House Science Committees are preparing for a hearing on S&T after the Presidentâ€™s budget is released next month.
The Chairman called out Biowatch by name. This is the program that deploys detectors to provide early warning of an intentionally introduced pathogen. According to todayâ€™s remarks, Biowatch can expect renewed scrutiny.
While it was not in his prepared remarks, Chairman Thomson pointed out during his comments the lack of screening for air cargo and suggested that his Committee would seek measures aimed providing some kind of visibility into the contents of cargo placed on passenger planes. He also noted that sea-borne cargo (â€œanything entering our portsâ€) must be subject to better screening. It was unclear if his call for transparency was intended to support 100% radiography screening of shipping container bound for the U.S. His prepared speech made no mention of ports or screening.
DHS contracting accountability made the list. The Chairman named both the Secure Border Initiative (SBI Net) and US-VISIT as likely targets of oversight. He directly questioned the use of a â€œborder fenceâ€ to manage immigration and security needs.
â€œSecure Borders, Open Doorsâ€ Makes Progress, Sets Goals, Requests Input
That leads into another message today that Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, circulated through an email to outline measures intended to improve visa processing under the joint State Department-DHS â€œSecure Borders, Open Doorsâ€ policy. Her message as I received it today (bold emphasis added, immaterial language snipped):
January 29, 2007
SUBJECT: A Message from Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, regarding Improvements to U.S. Visa Processing
The United States is one of the most open and engaged societies on Earth, maintaining vibrant family, commercial and educational links with peoples and countries across the globe. As a leader in the travel industry, you fully appreciate the national economic impact of international visitors. Foreign travelers contribute almost $105 billion annually to the American economy; international students account for an additional $13 billion.
Our task is to vigilantly protect U.S. border security and at the same time to maintain America’s openness to legitimate travelers – a policy we call “Secure Borders, Open Doors.” Working closely with the international business and travel community, academic groups, and other stakeholders, we have introduced features designed to streamline visa processing. Recent improvements include:
* An electronic visa application form, which reduces errors, eliminates duplicative data-entry, and so increases the number of applicants each office can interview daily;
* All consular offices post their visa appointment wait times on-line, so travelers can plan accordingly;
* We give scheduling and processing priority to students and urgent business travelers;
* We have added 570 consular positions worldwide, and are transferring some positions to ensure that workloads are evenly distributed;
* We are making significant investment in technology to speed processing and improve data sharing with other government agencies.
I am pleased to say that these efforts have produced results. In Fiscal Year 2006, overall nonimmigrant visa issuance rose 8% over the previous year. Business/tourist visa issuance rose 12% worldwide, and student visa issuances were up 14%. Processing delays have been cut dramatically: 98% of qualified visa applicants are approved within two days of their visa interview. We have “turned the corner” and will continue our efforts in this positive direction.
Meanwhile, visa demand is surging, especially in key emerging travel markets such as China, India and Brazil. Adding more staff and more resources are part of the answer; we are also piloting creative new approaches, leveraging technology and proven best business practices, to meet this challenge. Over the next two years we plan to introduce a variety of enhancements, including:
* A start-to-finish all-electronic visa process;
* A centralized visa appointment management system that will ensure that over 90% of requests for visa appointments can be handled within 30 business days;
* Technological innovations including remote data collection and interview via digital videoconference.
As we implement our plans, we genuinely welcome suggestions and comments from private sector stakeholders. At the same time, we depend on you and others in the private sector to help spread the word that the U.S. welcomes international visitors and that the visa application process is not a daunting ordeal, as it is sometimes still depicted in the press. News media are quick to report negative stories – many of which recycle complaints about problems that have long since been addressed and solved, or describe increasingly rare instances of long waits for visa approval.
We believe our efforts are striking the right balance between security and openness. The Bureau of Consular Affairs is committed to working with the international business and travel community to maintain and enhance our welcome to legitimate travelers. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Bureau for Consular Affairs
Department of State
More To Come
My posts on Homeland Security Watch will focus on organizational challenges, WMD issues, international aspects of homeland security, and developments that relate to the homeland security marketspace. Expect me to veer from this pretty regularly if I can. I’ll also make an effort to share useful materials pertaining to these and other issue areas as often as possible.
Final Note: I join Christian in thanking all the readers of Homeland Security Watch. Please keep up with this site as I’ll be joined by other contributors posting regularly. And, naturally, your comments are always greatly valued.