THE MAGAZINE

Tilting at Homeland Security's Windmills

By Sherry Harowitz

They say the definition of crazy is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. That adage comes to mind when I see how Congress views passing a law as synonymous with addressing a problem. It’s understandable, as passing laws is that body’s purview; it’s like the old joke: if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
 
But members might as well mount a horse and carry a lance as pass laws with goals that are patently impossible to achieve. Yet that’s the tendency with security proposals.
 
The latest evidence of this is a well-intentioned bill introduced by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) called the Secure Border Act. It would require the Department of Homeland Security to have a five-year-plan for gaining “operational control” of U.S. borders, defined as preventing all—yes, all—illegal entries into the United States. What resources would be needed to achieve that goal—without impeding commerce, of course—was one topic of hearings Miller held. The discussions seemed to occur in a parallel universe, not the one in which budget pressures will prevent great increases in resources from being provided. Not that even endless resources could achieve zero illegal entries.
 
When Congress passes laws that can’t be complied with, it sets up a predictable cycle in which officials from the Department of Homeland Security are forced to appear at hearings, explain why they haven’t succeeded, get berated, and get an extension of the deadline. Or the agency finds a way to finesse the letter of the law, which may simply give us a false sense of security. The printer cartridge bomb attempt suggests 100 percent cargo screening may fall into that category. Both results undermine everyone’s credibility and make the public even more cynical about government.
 
And when unrealistic goals run up against real-world technological limitations, as seems the case with SBInet, pressure builds to kill the entire project. Ironically, the new approach is usually the old approach with a new name. With regard to SBInet, a Government Accountability Office report states outright, “The Alternative (Southwest) Border Technology plan is to incorporate a mix of technology, including an Integrated Fixed Tower surveillance system similar to that used in the current SBInet capability.”
 
Why not just analyze what failed, accept the limits of existing technology, set achievable interim goals, and continue along the same path incrementally, without the histrionics? That would avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water and restarting the clock, which condemns us to always being at first base and never truly applying lessons learned.
 
I see a glimmer of hope in a new analytic tool from Sandia Labs called the High Level Model, which is supposed to help assess the effectiveness of border security solutions not only individually but in terms of how they all work together. That’s critical. But it’s also critical that Congress set realistic goals that factor in budgetary and technological limitations and real-world constraints.

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