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Commentary: Oversight overkill

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   June 19, 2008 at 10:54 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) -- It's the world's greatest deliberative body, but it's in bad need of another overhaul. Pity the poor secretary for Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. His department reports to 86 congressional oversight committees and subcommittees, down only two committees since myriad appeals were made to give DHS officials more time making the nation more secure and less time preparing testimony for committee hearings. Over the past year, Chertoff and his senior colleagues have testified 224 times, or four times a week. Department heads have hired former congressional staffers whose full-time job is to gather information to help them prepare their testimony.

The DHS press office seemed to be crying uncle with a release headed "In Case You Missed It," a piece by David Olive in The Hill headed "Congress, Heal Thyself."

Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the new agency's top officials have testified 761 times, provided some 7,800 written reports and answered more than 13,000 questions, all published in the 300-page daily Congressional Record. Chertoff has to field the conflicting demands of 86 committee chairs as he gradually merges 22 sprawling separate agencies into a new Cabinet department with 170,000 employees.

From the Coast Guard and its 12,400 miles of coastline (including Hawaii and Alaska); to Customs Service (9.6 million containers offloaded at 361 U.S. seaports); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (220,000 illegals deported each year, including 72,000 by plane, all at U.S. taxpayers' expense, and looking for an estimated 15 million illegals living and working in the United States); Border Patrol (catches 12,000 illegals a day), all this is still a fraction of the department's daily burdens.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Transportation Security Administration (those not always nice people who man airport security and confiscate anything over 3 fluid ounces of hair tonic, mouthwash or perfume), the Secret Service, Federal Protective Service, and dozens of other lesser-known functions and responsibilities all come under DHS. A little-known provision of the Homeland Security Act says the primary mission of DHS includes monitoring connections between illegal drug trafficking and terrorism, and "coordinating efforts to sever such connections and otherwise contribute to interdicting" the illicit traffic.

DHS also accesses, receives and analyzes a vast array of information from law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community and other federal, state and local and private sector entities. The Cyber Security Enhancement Act was also folded into Homeland Security. But it probably will be another five to 10 years before all components are seamlessly integrated in DHS, as all branches of the military are in the Department of Defense.

Hopefully, a new Congress in 2009 will move swiftly to put the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act on steroids. It already looks anemic in the light of oil at $135 a barrel and world food shortages made significantly worse by an energy bill that requires a six-fold increase in ethanol use to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.

A bill that dictates an increase in the production of clean, renewable fuels and boosting mileage by 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon is beginning to look like a Model T Ford approach to a national emergency that requires a Manhattan-type project for the atomic bomb in World War II or President Kennedy's man-on-the-moon-in-a-decade pledge in 1961.

Democrats have got to swallow their pride and opt for oil drilling off both coasts, as has long been the case in the Gulf of Mexico with no untoward environmental consequences.

There are at least 18 billion barrels available worth some $2.5 trillion that could be brought to market beginning five years hence. Solar energy has made spectacular strides in recent times. Given national emergency status, the nation's rooftops could be solarized for $5,000 instead of the present estimate of $24,000.

If U.S. security was zero at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the creation of DHS, where would it be on a scale of 1 to 10 today? Chertoff confidently told us 7. No question it is infinitely harder to be plotting without the kind of freedom of movement the 19 terrorists enjoyed as they prepared to hijack four passenger aircraft. But terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom were not deterred by London's vast amalgam of surveillance cameras.

Londoners going about their daily chores are seen an average of 300 times a day. Cameras are on almost every street corner. Soon a known suspect caught on camera will trigger an automatic alarm that would enable police scanners to follow his subsequent movements.

Britain has now installed a total of 4.5 million spycams. In the United States, some cities report short-term crime drops after closed-circuit cameras are installed. But British studies show these dips are temporary.

Crooks and terrorists can easily disguise their street appearance with wigs and thick tortoise shell glasses. The cop on camera surveillance duty can watch only six to eight video feeds at a time and then only for 20 minutes.

Chicago may have better luck with video understanding algorithms going into its spycam network. If a terrorist comes too close to a restricted government building and leaves a package somewhere or on a platform of the Chicago Transit Authority's "L," then they're on Criminal Camera. At least, that's the idea.

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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