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Kaniewski: Congress Should Consider Its Own Failures in Attempted Bombing

As Congress critiques the Obama administration’s response to the Christmas bomber attack, it should pause and address its own culpability. To understand why, first consider the role of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

[IMGCAP(1)]CBP has an important — if not preeminent — role in the Department of Homeland Security to prevent dangerous individuals from entering the United States by air, land or sea. CBP plays a crucial role in preventing dangerous individuals from getting on aircraft headed to the U.S. by reviewing terrorism databases to ensure that concerning individuals receive additional scrutiny during the screening process or are denied boarding.

In the case of the Christmas bomber, CBP reviewed passenger information as flight 253 transited the Atlantic Ocean and determined that one passenger, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, required additional review. It was for this reason that CBP officers planned to interview and further inspect Abdulmutallab upon arrival in Detroit. But alas, it was too late. CBP had failed to identify Abdulmutallab prior to departure from Amsterdam, even though a CBP team was present at the airport.

Now turn to Capitol Hill, where for more than four months President Barack Obama’s nominee for CBP commissioner has sat idle, patiently awaiting action by the Senate. No confirmation hearing has been scheduled, and there appears to be no urgency to consider the nomination. This in the wake of the Christmas attack, where CBP played a starring role in a production that narrowly averted a tragic ending.

Unlike the troubled nomination of the Transportation Security Administration chief, there have been no concerns raised about the CBP nominee, Alan Bersin. So why, in the wake of an attempted terrorist attack, is the Senate not moving expeditiously to consider the CBP nominee? The answer is unfortunately a familiar theme of dysfunctional Congressional oversight.

In the case of CBP, like many of the 22 agencies merged into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, oversight remains a vestige of its previous incarnation. The Senate Finance Committee, which had jurisdiction over the U.S. Customs Service in the Department of Treasury — before it was dissolved and folded into CBP — retained oversight of CBP in perpetuity.

The Senate Finance Committee, including Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and ranking member Chuck Grassley Iowa, has been at the center of the health care debate in the Senate. While health care was the committee’s priority, this important nomination disappeared from the committee’s radar. Since no hearing has yet been scheduled, Bersin cannot begin the journey down the long road that awaits him if he is to be confirmed. And while the committee has managed to squeeze in hearings for Health and Human Services and Treasury nominees during the health care debate, the DHS nominee has been afforded no such opportunity. In the meantime, even the acting CBP commissioner retired as planned, just days after the Christmas attack. Thus, one of the key agencies securing our nation against terrorism is now without a leadership team.

The CBP example is unfortunately not a unique one; 80 committees and subcommittees continue to exercise oversight over various components of DHS. Despite numerous calls for reform during the past decade, including from the 9/11 commission and other congressionally chartered commissions, consolidating Congressional oversight remains an abiding, but still elusive, necessity. As 9/11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton recently testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in reference to the Fort Hood and Christmas attacks, “Enduring fractured and overlapping committee jurisdictions on both sides of the Hill have left Congressional oversight in a unsatisfactory state.”

While the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel and the Intelligence Committee continue to hold hearings investigating the Obama administration and chastising it for its Christmas bombing failures, Congressional leaders stand on the sidelines either unconcerned or unaware that such a critical nomination languishes.

It is time for the umbilical cord to be cut from the legacy committees who today do not place sufficient priority on the homeland security missions of the agencies under their jurisdiction. For example, no matter how important health care reform may be to the Senate Finance Committee, it should not trump our nation’s safety and security.

As a New York Times editorial contemplated in December 2008, “This is a comedy that invites fresh national tragedy unless Congressional leaders finally resolve to streamline down to a few dedicated panels.”

The near miss on Christmas and the common judgment of nation’s top intelligence officials that an attempted terrorist attack will occur on U.S. soil in the next six months should serve as reminders of our continued vulnerability to a terrorist attack and an impetus to finally reform Congressional oversight of homeland security.

Daniel J. Kaniewski is deputy director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute and a former special assistant to the president for homeland security in the George W. Bush administration.

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