I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our Homeland Security Department lately. The DHS was formed after the 9/11 attacks, of course, but since then it has grown to mammoth proportions. It now has more than 200,000 employees, and it is the nation’s third-largest Cabinet department after Defense and Veterans Affairs.
The taxpayers’ bill for DHS is also enormous. If all goes as planned, you and I will send $59 billion more of our hard-earned dollars to the DHS this year to advance its mission to “prevent attacks and protect Americans — on the land, in the sea and in the air.”
Here we are more than a dozen years after 9/11 — and hundreds of billions of dollars later — and we still have no foolproof way to sift through our own suspected terrorist watch list.
It’s called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, and it currently holds a whopping 700,000 suspects’ names. Something as simple as a misspelled name can gum up the works and render the list next to useless.
After Russian and Saudi intelligence agents labeled Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev a “follower of radical Islam” and warned us in 2011 to keep an eye on him, neither the FBI nor the CIA found any evidence that he was connected to extremist Muslim groups.
Nonetheless, Tsarnaev’s name was entered onto the TIDE list — but, yes, you guessed it, his last name was misspelled. The list should have spit out Tsarnaev’s name when he traveled from Massachusetts to Chechnya and Dagestan (known terrorist training grounds) in 2012, but it didn’t. Tsarnaev stayed in Russia for six full months and then returned to the United States unhampered and apparently unwatched. It was during that trip, U.S. intelligence believes, the older Tsarnaev brother became radicalized and programmed to do harm to as many Americans as possible.
Tsarnaev’s dramatically accusatory mother back in Dagestan (she left the Boston area after being charged with shoplifting) has claimed the FBI hounded her son for five years. If that really happened, don’t you think the FBI would have discovered the Tsarnaev brothers’ bomb plot and acted to stop it?
On the other hand, there seems to be so many holes in our national security safety net I don’t know what to think anymore. I’m still unclear as to which agency was actually supposed to watch Tsarnaev. The FBI? DHS? Immigration or some other far-flung governmental body?
I have worked with countless devoted and tireless agents of the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Customs, and state and local police departments across the country. I hate to cast aspersions on any law enforcement agency’s dedicated work keeping us safe. But it is clear more than a decade after 9/11 that the U.S. infrastructure needed to ferret out possible terrorists is still blatantly lacking in major ways.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was recently forced to admit a major deficiency. She revealed we still don’t have a trustworthy, computerized system to figure out which foreign students are in the country legally or on expired student visas. Unbelievable!
That student visa lapse allowed a young man from Kazakhstan to recently re-enter the United States and head back to Boston even though he wasn’t enrolled in school anymore. That person is now charged with trying to help the younger Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cover up his Boston Marathon bombing crimes by removing evidence from his dorm room.
Napolitano confirms that since the tragedy in Boston, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been laboriously checking student visa files — by hand — to identify which are still valid and which are not. Maybe, Napolitano says, we’ll have an automated system by the end of this month. Really? Between Sept. 11, 2001, and now no one thought it was important to keep computerized and organized tabs on foreign student visas?
It’s clear we need to shake up the organization of all our domestic protection efforts to come up with a mandatory and cooperative framework that assures all our government agencies work together and are more responsive to today’s security needs.
Now comes word of a new threat that seems to have caught authorities by surprise. While the national debate was focused on new gun control laws, there was a unique kind of gun being added to the American arsenal: plastic guns produced by relatively inexpensive 3D printers. These new printers do have positive applications. They can produce low-cost medical, automotive and toy parts.
Gun makers simply load the printers with sheets of thick plastic and program them to follow a computerized blueprint. Plastic gun parts are then formed and snapped together and loaded with traditional ammunition. They are just as deadly as any other firearm.
There is one small piece of metal included, designed to meet some obscure federal law on guns, but this new breed of weapon is thought to be mostly undetectable. That means our traditional screening procedures at airports, schools and government buildings could be useless.
I don’t know if Homeland Security should have been on top of this new invention. Maybe it’s the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI or any other number of government agencies.
I do know that as terror and crime continue to morph into various and scary forms, it is imperative that our bloated and disorganized government agencies get it together. Lives depend on it.