Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the
Department of Homeland Security discusses measures the U.S. is taking to further
ensure security in the country. Mr. Hutchinson talks about the implementation
of biometrics for visa holders, such as fingerprints and iris scans, and the
new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, designed to let university
officials electronically update the status of their international students.
U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security
Borgida: And now joining us, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation
Security at the Department of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson. From 1997
through the year 2001 he served as a member of the U.S. Congress, from the
wonderful State of Arkansas. I've been there a lot. Thanks so much for being
with us today. The topic is terrorism and security here in the United States.
We're delighted you could be with us today.
If we could begin with you putting the challenge you face in some perspective
for our foreign audience. From your standpoint, what is the biggest challenge
for you in this job?
Hutchinson: Well, I think the biggest challenge, of course, is to
make sure our country is secure from those people who want to harm us, but
at the same time to make sure we don't close off America, we continue to welcome
our foreign guests. To send the right signal that we're serious about security,
but at the same time we have a desire to continue to welcome foreign students
and visitors to the United States.
Borgida: Finding that balance is so tough these days. You're talking
about the use of some high-tech opportunities to deal with the issue of students
and visas and so forth. The word "biometrics" is being used. Explain what you're
doing now for us.
Hutchinson: Well, a number of things. First of all, we need to work
with our international partners in developing a biometric standard for our
passport documents. But in addition, we're moving ahead this year to make sure
that in our airports and seaports, as visitors come to the United States, that
we can identify who they are, to be able to take a fingerprint to assure their
identity, welcome them to the United States, but on the small percent of individuals,
very small, that might check against a terrorist database, then we will be
much safer because of that.
And so both in travel documents but also being able to track the foreign
visitors in the sense of knowing who comes in and when they leave, we want
to develop that system in the United States.
Borgida: So biometrics, fingerprints; eye prints, is that being used
Hutchinson: Well, I know that in some countries, for example in the
Netherlands, they use iris scans. And so we want to develop a system that first
is fingerprint based, because that is most acceptable across the world, and
we have a greater capability to identify terrorists or criminals from that.
But then we want to be able to have the capability to move to facial recognition
or iris scans or some other biometric identifier that is accepted in the world
standards. Because we need to move together in that arena. So we're working
with the international groups to develop exactly what is the most effective
and cost efficient to do.
Borgida: Let's talk about the issue of airports and people coming
into airports. There was a recent warning and concern about passengers perhaps
using electronic means, cameras and various items, to smuggle weapons on board
or hide explosives and so forth on passenger planes. How big a challenge is
that? Because of course that's the most dramatic image that we have of 9/11
that strikes all of us with fear.
Hutchinson: Well, it does concern us. We've had recent intelligence
that al-Qaida continues to have a fixation on aircraft, believing that that
is a good weapon that they can use against the United States. We have put in
very significant security measures, from thousands of Federal air marshals
to screening devices. And so we have confidence those security measures render
our airplanes safe.
But whenever we get intelligence they might be using cameras or other electronic
equipment to have a small explosive device in there, we're taking extra security
measures, checking those more closely as people move through the airports.
Another thing that we're looking at is the continued concern about MANPAD's
or surface-to-air missiles, and trying to reduce the availability of those
around the world, and making sure our airports are protected from that possibility.
Borgida: And you're of course responsible for airports, for ports,
for waterways, all the methods of transportation. That's quite a large portfolio.
Talk to us a little bit about the challenge at the borders, because there have
been expressed concerns that items, perhaps larger than cameras and so on,
could be smuggled into this country below deck, hidden somewhere on board various
ships and so on. That would seem to be, with the vast border, a real challenge
as well for you.
Hutchinson: Well, we have two issues there. One are the 6 million
seagoing containers that come into the United States every year. We have a
very effective targeting system, based upon intelligence, looking at the shipper
information, the security of the containers. And we electronically surveil
all that come in, in terms of the manifest. We physically inspect all of the
at-risk cargo, but we're trying to target the right ones, and I think it's
a good deterrent, but also it's very effective for stopping containers that
would have harmful products coming to the United States.
At our borders, of course we historically have had open borders between Canada,
and we've had borders with Mexico that have been tighter, but still we've had
many border crossers coming back and forth. Now, in the time of terrorism,
we have to tighten those. And so we're increasing our border patrol activities
between the points of entry, where people legitimately come in, and we're also
looking more closely at fraudulent passports, travel documents, and we're taking
more biometrics as people would come in. We're still trying to move people
through quickly, but we've increased the security on our border and for containers
as well that come into the United States.
Borgida: Do you think the average American at this point, in 2003,
feels confident in the American system of protection? Because one does hear
criticism from some quarters about the porous southern border to some extent,
where drugs have traditionally flowed through into the United States. And there
has been some concern I guess with the air marshals. There was a report that
there were fewer air marshals on board airplanes and then suddenly there were
more on board airplanes, a public relations issues for you I'm sure. Talk to
us a little bit about that point. How confident do you think Americans feel
in what you're doing?
Hutchinson: I think Americans feel confident that we're safer today
than we were on September 11th, that the Department of Homeland Security is
working very hard and putting in place security measures, better policies,
investing more, that makes our country safer. I think they also recognize,
though, that with the freedoms that we have and the commercial traffic that
we have, that it takes more than just the Federal Government to secure America.
It takes investment by the private sector, businesses, companies, that understand
the importance of security, and the average citizen to keep an eye on things.
Borgida: Are you getting help from corporations and businesses? Are
they actively involved or are they fearful that they'll lose a dollar in the
Hutchinson: No. A good illustration is the airlines. We called them
last weekend. We had to cancel the transit without visa program. That was a
vulnerability for us. They were very supportive. They accommodated the travelers.
In addition, the port owners, which are private sector, they're investing millions
and millions of dollars in their own security, in surveillance cameras. We're
looking at our mail systems, some are privately owned, investing in security.
So it's a good national effort, not just a Federal Government effort but a
national effort, to protect America, and there is a great success story there.
Borgida: We're delighted to hear that, and we hope only the best for
you in the challenge ahead. Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation
Security at the Department of Homeland Security, thanks so much for being our
Hutchinson: Thank you.