BOB GARFIELD: Last week on our show, producer Sarah Abdurrahman described what happened when she, along with her friends and family, were detained at the border after returning from a wedding in Toronto. They were held for six hours in a freezing cold room. Their phones were confiscated. One in the party was subjected to invasive questions about their religious practices. And none was given an explanation.
The story garnered many, many comments on our website, like this one from Nick in Boston who wrote, “I don't like where I see us headed. We are one serious terror attack or some other catastrophe away from a total police state here.” A commentator, identified only as Ash, wrote, quote, “I travel internationally a lot and this sort of abuse at the border is becoming more commonplace and more widely accepted. I applaud OTM for addressing this issue; like all abuses of power, it thrives in darkness.” Others suggested that we should just accept this as an unfortunate new reality. Commentator Hasters wrote, quote, “The majority of terrorist attacks are committed by Muslims who are otherwise indistinguishable from their religious brethren. If you don't want to be targeted then change your name and stop practicing Islam, don't blame the CBP for being curious when car loads of potential terrorists come through a checkpoint at the same time.”
But the prevailing response was one of frustration with the lack of transparency and oversight at our borders. Moonbat from New York City wrote, quote, “I find this outrageous and appalling. Public servants ought to be accountable. How about elected officials - are they open to calling for hearings? Which committee is responsible for providing oversight?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While Sarah was reporting the piece, she was unable to get direct answers to her questions from any of the government agencies she contacted. We followed up with requests this week to the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, but again no response. The CBP is huge. It employs over 58,000 employees, but it's just one part of a much, much larger organization, the Department Of Homeland Security. And who has oversight over DHS? Well, that would be the US Congress. But with more than a hundred congressional committees and subcommittees currently claiming jurisdiction over the DHS, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-author of a recent report calling for reform of the DHS, told us the more overseers, the less oversight.
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Nobody focuses on the big picture. The people in the department spend more time responding to congressional requests than they do in doing their jobs in homeland security. You get all kinds of overlap in the roles of the committees. The problem is confusion, basically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that the complexity of the current system leads to gridlock, but do you have a specific example of the kind of gridlock you mean? FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Congress has not passed a Cyber Security bill, left it up to the President to do it. That’s not the best way to handle that kind of a problem. They’ve had very little work on dealing with things like cargo being shipped in to the United States. We don’t know what’s in the holds of a lot of ships. General aviation, as opposed to commercial aviation, is not scrutinized carefully. In other words, if you can get on a private jet, you just walk in the terminal and climb aboard, no security of any kind. There are 75 biological threats; we don’t have any sense of priorities among them. There are all kinds of gaps in homeland security under the present system that I think have a better chance of being corrected, if the Congress is doing a, a proper job of robust oversight.
Pulling these executives in from the department, grilling them, that’s the way we do it with the Department of Defense, that’s the way we do it with Justice, that’s the way we do it with the State Department. We need to do the same thing on homeland security.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the process bogged down in partisan conflicts?
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: I don't think that's the chief problem. This is more organizational. When we began to put so much focus on homeland security, created a new department, everybody wanted to get into the act in the Congress and have some influence on it. All kinds of committees began to assert jurisdiction. It grew like topsy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think some sort of change in congressional oversight of the Department Of Homeland Security is even possible in the relative short term, or do we have to wait a generation?
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Oh, I don’t think you have to wait a generation, [LAUGHS] at least I hope not. The question of jurisdiction comes up at the beginning of every new Congress. The leaders of the Congress, and it’s principally their decision, have to be made aware that the American people will be more secure if the Congress steps up to its responsibilities and does a good job of oversight. And that means adjusting the jurisdictions of the committees, among other things, so that you don't have this plethora of committees and they can do a much more focused, concentrated job on homeland security.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The oversight apparatus grew like topsy. The organization itself did too, particularly the CBP, Customs and Border Protection Agency. It's grown so fast that the ACLU claims it's now the largest law enforcement agency in the country. And so, even within the agency itself, there is no oversight as to not just its priorities, which Congress seems to care about, but its conduct. Is there any congressional committee responsible for overseeing the conduct of agents at the border or even of the office that is supposed to monitor that conduct?
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Oftentimes the bureaucracy, because of its bigness, its indifference, whatever the problem is, is not responsive. That's not an unusual problem in government. But the Congress has to bear down on the DHS in oversight hearings, where the conduct of the DHS agents have been irresponsible, have not been sufficiently sensitive to the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. Congress can do that pretty well, if they’re on their job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you're saying is that if you can't get anywhere using the channels that have been supposedly established for you within the Executive Branch, oftentimes you can actually have an impact as a constituent.
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Absolutely. If I were mistreated at the border, I’m from Indiana, I would march myself right down to the office of Indiana senators and Indiana congressmen. I would go to my representatives, I’d say, look, this is outrageous. I was treated poorly. I tried to get it corrected. They didn’t do anything about it. I want you to write a letter to the secretary of the DHS. I want you to make sure that in hearings the bureaucrats are asked about this and why it happened, that if you’re a member of Congress, you also talk to your colleagues in trying to move this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In response to our producer Sarah Abdurrahman's experience at the border, we’ve gotten comments from people around the country. Does it work if you’re approaching your congressman on behalf of someone else?
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: There's always more political pressure in greater numbers, so you want to organize the people who are complaining. You want to contact as many members of Congress as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Sometimes members of Congress will be very receptive and they’ll really battle for it. Other times, they’ll ignore it. That’s why we have elections.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any particular committee, given that there are so many, that would be most likely to respond to something like this?
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: That would not be easy to do, with the current proliferation.
What, what I would do is go through my congressman, and that’s what your people ought to do, because then the congressman can guide you to the proper committee. Pressure, that's what you have to do. You have to create pressure in the Congress and pressure against the DHS to perform properly. That's part of the process. It happens every single day, or at least it should, in a representative democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much, Congressman.
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: Surely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lee Hamilton is a former member of Congress and is currently a member of the US Homeland Security Advisory Council.