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Interview: Security Official Explains How U.S. Working To Prevent Another 9/11

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security Randy Beardsworth in Salzburg (RFE/RL) Recently, RFE/RL interviewed U.S. Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security Randy Beardsworth on what the United States is doing to protect its borders and ensure there is no repeat of the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001. The interview was conducted at this year's Salzburg Seminar, in Austria.

RFE/RL: Since 9/11 there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States and I believe this is part of you addressing the issue of the prevention of terrorism. What's your concept?

Beardsworth: Certainly, we haven't had any terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the terrorists aren't targeting the United States. We're still very concerned about that, obviously. But we've been fortunate. We think that a lot of the United States' efforts, both domestically and overseas, have been helpful in disrupting Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

But we've also created a number of systems for prevention. For example, within the cargo world and community, we've implemented programs such as the Container Security Initiative, we've been working on supply-chain security. We have the ability to screen every container that's coming into the United States because now we get information on those containers earlier. We're able to do a computerized screening on the containers to see which ones might be at risk. We have a number of layered defenses with respect to cargo.

With respect to people, we have a similar type of arrangement. First of all, our visa system has been improved, has been tightened up. The information that is collected in visa interviews, when a visa is issued, is available more broadly to us in DHS, the Department of Homeland Security. And then as people travel to the United States, on commercial airlines for example, we know through the Advance Passenger Information System who's on that airplane, shortly after the plane takes off. And we're able to look at those names and passport numbers and to see if there's anyone that we're particularly concerned about. We also have the ability to look at the passenger-name-record information for people traveling to the United States on international air carriers and to do more analysis on that.

And then, at our ports of entry, we've consolidated all of the inspectors, the customs inspectors, agriculture inspectors, and immigration inspectors into one customs and border-patrol officer. And we've improved the training and consolidated the efforts at the ports of entry. So there are a number of things that we've done within the Department of Homeland Security, but even broader than that, within government we have much better connectivity between agencies to share information and so forth. There's still a lot of work to be done but we've put in a lot of measures since 9/11.

RFE/RL: You're talking mostly about people who might come from abroad to the United States. If we take the example of Europe, in London it was homegrown terrorism. And in the biggest shock recently, the investigation in Spain showed that it was homegrown terrorism. So how do you address this issue?

Beardsworth: Well, that's interesting. Of course, we don't have the same manifestation of the same kind of problems that we saw in London and in Madrid. And I think that we need to ask ourselves why and understand why, in trying to ensure that we're continuing to have policies in the United States that would prevent that same type of event from happening in the United States.

I think that the Muslim community in the United States is different than perhaps in Europe. There are different factors. The reasons why people come to the United States might be different. But we need to understand those things and we need to work with each other in trying to prevent radicalization, whether it's in Europe or in the United States, or the causes of radicalization throughout the world.

RFE/RL: There was an outcry in Europe when the head of the Council of British Imams was denied entry into the United States. He flew in and was turned back at the airport. He is a prominent figure, a very progressive Muslim leader in Britain. Why do those mistakes happen?

Beardsworth: First of all, sometimes mistakes are made. In any system, anywhere, there's always the possibility of mistakes. Certainly, in the popular press you often see somebody say: "Gee. I'm on the 'no-fly list'" or "I'm on the terrorist watch list." And that's simply not the case. They share a name that is similar to somebody that's on the list. That may be one reason.

Oftentimes, when somebody is denied entry, there actually may be some reasons that they're denied entry that aren't readily apparent and we're not going to disclose publicly, certainly on a particular individual. So there are a number of reasons why somebody may be denied entry. The vast majority of people that are denied entry into the United States are not because of terrorism-related reasons but because of criminal-related reasons or the fact that they may be deemed to be an intending migrant without an appropriate immigrant visa.

So there are a number of reasons why people might be denied entry. Sometimes it's a mistake. But more often than not, there's either information that would make the individual inadmissible or they are what we call "intending immigrants" rather than a legitimate visitor.

RFE/RL: There's also an issue of borders, of course, and the United States tightened its borders with Canada after [9/11]. But the statistics of illegal border crossings with Mexico, on the southern border, is really surprising. The southern border is still "open."

Beardsworth: You're absolutely correct. And as I mentioned, we've taken a large number of measures to improve the security of people coming through the ports of entry, whether it's land ports of entry or airports or even seaports of entry. But the area between ports of entry is still problematic. The American people see this. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security [Michael Chertoff] has seen this and is very concerned about this. The president is very concerned. And Congress is concerned.

So we have an unprecedented opportunity within the United States now, with the interest and the alignment of interest between the executive branch, from the president on down and Congress, and the American people, to do something about border control and immigration reform. And so there are several things that are under way.

Within the Department of Homeland Security, we have implemented what we call the "Secure Border Initiative" and it has two major pillars. One is border control and the second one is interior enforcement. And on the border-control side, we've taken a number of measures to try to bring the border under control. And it's a long-term issue. It's not going to be solved overnight.

But for example we have completely reengineered the removal process so that the phenomena known as "catch and release" -- in other words when nine Mexican immigrants would come across the border, we would give them notice to appear before an immigration judge and then let them out into society, because we didn't have adequate bed space. Well, we're no longer doing that.

But it's not because we were able to buy more bed space. It's because we were able to be more efficient in returning migrants. We've found in this process, for example, that one of the biggest impediments to moving people through the removal system quickly was the fact that countries were slow to issue travel documents to take their people back.

So we worked very carefully with the countries of Central America and Latin America and now were working very carefully and closely with China to try to decrease that cycle time so that as we interdict people on the southern border, we can put them into detention until we remove them some few days later rather than weeks or months later.

And many of the numbers that we saw last year coming across the southern border, that were released into society, we've been able to bring that number way down. We also have what we call the Secure Border Initiative net, which is an effort by the Department of Homeland Security, working through Customs and Border Protection, particularly the Border Patrol, to develop a system with increased physical infrastructure, with technology, sensing technology, command-and-control communications system, an increased number of people, the right type of people, to take a comprehensive, integrated-systems approach to controlling the border. This is the first time that we've done this across both borders.

We're very soon going to be releasing what is called a request for proposal from industry, going out to industry and saying, "Industry, tell us, help us, to figure out what the best system is to do this." So those are two major steps on border control, and we have [a] similar systems approach that we're looking at for interior enforcement [and] for removing migrants that are already in the United States illegally to be able to identify and remove them.

RFE/RL: Let's return back to radicalization, if you don't mind. What are the measures there? We know that France, for example, put an emphasis on separation of terrorists from the society, including physical separation, including very close watch in prisons. That's where the recruitment is going on. So what is [being] done in this direction?

Beardsworth: It's interesting that we have been talking here in Salzburg for the last week about a number of issues and one of the things that we talked about was the need for a common lexicon. And when we talk about radicalization, [it] probably is not exactly the right word.

What I found within the Department of Homeland Security and even within government more broadly is that there are several different components to the problem. One is what you just mentioned, which is radicalization in prisons or in mosques or, if there were to be, in universities. It's the element of radicalization that is almost at the end stage, as people are being motivated to be violent in their radicalization. And, that function is primarily an intel [intelligence], law-enforcement operational function to deal with -- radicalization at that stage in the process.

But I think there are a couple of other questions or stages to talk about to deal with in respect to radicalization. In addition to that, conditions at the short-term stage that I just mentioned, there's an intermediate-term stage of communicating with the public, establishing relationships, with educating people in government and enforcement about the Muslim community, in particular, of reaching out in a dialogue.

And then there's a third time period or element to radicalization. I like to ask the question with respect to the United States. We haven't seen a radicalization in the United States and why is that? And what are the policies that we should be doing today or not doing today that will help us maintain that lack of radicalization in the United States over a five-, 10-, 15-year period?

We've begun that dialogue in the United States in all three areas -- the short term in prisons: how do you communicate with communities today? And in the near term. And what are the policies in the long term that we should be implementing to mitigate or to dampen or prevent radicalization?

RFE/RL: We started to talk about the language. One of the questions that were raised here is really the difference in terminology. Europe was speaking about fighting terrorism and considered it to be a pure criminal act and criminal problem. Whereas in the United States there is still a war on terrorism. War is a military approach rather than a criminal one.

Beardsworth: I'm not convinced that that distinction is more than rhetoric. I think that there are differences in approach between Europe and the United States. With respect to what Europe is doing, internal to Europe and with respect to what the United States is doing, internal to the United States, I would say that we both take a criminal approach -- their rights, their procedures, due process, issues of privacy that we deal with. Both Europe and the United States are trying to find the right solutions and are aggressively pursuing investigations, pursuing judicial procedures against people who are involved in terrorist activity.

I think with respect to the activity in the United States, one of the things that is important to understand is that there was a framework within Europe to deal with a long-standing problem of terrorist activity within Europe. I don't think that same framework existed in the United States, certainly not [to deal with] as well-developed [activity] as 9/11.

So we've had to establish from scratch, if you will, groundwork, a framework, a way of thinking about combating terrorism in a very short, compressed period of time. So our terminology, our analogies may be urgent. Clearly, the largest single terrorist attack in the world in modern times was in the United States in 9/11, so we have a particular sense of urgency about the problem.

I think that when you look at the relative strength of Al-Qaeda today as opposed to what it was on September 11, it's much diminished. And I think a lot of that can be attributed to the United States' very aggressive approach to battling Al-Qaeda and seeing it as an enemy that needs to be battled and not just as a criminal organization that we are going after.