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Homeland Security Weak as its Leader

James P. Pinkerton

HERE ARE TWO REASONS the American people don't trust the federal government to keep them secure - and why the immigration deal is likely to fail, cracking up on the rocks of public mistrust.

Consider the case of Andrew Speaker, the tort lawyer turned TB carrier. Suspected in January of having tuberculosis, the Atlantan was warned against flying but flew around the world anyway, potentially jeopardizing millions.

Federal officials were sufficiently alert to put him on a do-not-let-him-re-enter-the-country "watch list." But he drove into the United States from Canada on May 24. A border guard in Champlain, N.Y., reportedly thought he "looked fine." (One assumes, by the way, that a determined terrorist with a suitcase nuke will shave and take a shower before trying a similar stunt.) That border guard has been assigned to "other duties," which leads one to conclude that the Department of Homeland Security must have an ample supply of nonconsequential billets in which to put surplus deadwood.

Meanwhile, DHS is further in the news, thanks to the diligent digging of The Washington Times, which uncovered the truth about Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29, 2004. Back then, 13 Middle Eastern men boarded the plane, 12 of them carrying Syrian passports. The men attracted attention by making hand signals to each other, moving about in formation, spending long periods in the lavatories and so on.

Flight attendants and passengers were alarmed by the men's actions, and so authorities were waiting for them when the plane landed in Los Angeles. The men were interviewed and released. But, as reports of the incident trickled into the media, officials at DHS moved quickly - to stifle the concerns of American citizens. DHS officials declared that the Americans were "hysterical" in their reaction to the Syrians, chalking up the incident to cultural misunderstanding, if not outright racism.

But now the story gets worse, from a trust-the-government point of view. The DHS inspector general looked into the incident, completing a report March 30, 2006, confirming the eyewitness accounts of suspicious behavior, raising the distinct possibility that the Syrians' actions aboard the plane were part of a "dry run" for an attack.

In other words, the flight attendants and passengers were not paranoids but rather solid citizens, doing their watchful and lawful best to thwart terror. Whereupon DHS immediately "redacted" all but two sentences of the 51-page document. And there it sat, shrouded in government-imposed secrecy, for another 14 months, until the Times broke the whole story.

Now let's think about this incident for a bit. In 2004, three years after 9/11, Americans see something suspicious aboard an airplane. They report it, and their own government labels them as crackpots. And then, two years later, when the Americans are vindicated, Uncle Sam spikes the vindication.

So here's a question: Why does DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff still have his job? As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, and as the Andrew Speaker border incident confirms, Chertoff has zero administrative or leadership skills. His one talent seems to be as a Washington operator, keeping the lid on embarrassing inspector-general reports. If President George W. Bush says "Islam is peace," loyalist Chertoff is not going to undercut such political correctness with facts.

Oh, yes, Chertoff is good at flattering Teddy Kennedy, the administration's partner in immigration amnesty: "He's awesome," the secretary said of the senator last month. So, come to think of it, there's no mystery why Chertoff has his job.

Meanwhile, the American people must wait for a leader who will make homeland security the top priority. But don't hold your breath. It's revealing and disturbing, for example, that no presidential candidate has traveled up to Champlain to say "never again."

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

© 2007, Published by The Providence Journal Co.

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