Agendas for Homeland Security panels take shape

The dust from last week's elections has barely settled, but the landscape of hearings and priorities by the House and Senate homeland security committees is already becoming clear.

Surprisingly, the panels do not appear too far apart heading into the new Congress, even though the chambers will be controlled by different parties. But the Republican-controlled House Homeland Security Committee will likely hold more hearings, take a sharper tone and be more aggressive in criticizing the Obama administration. And the panels will likely differ when it comes to security along the Mexican border.

The House committee is likely to be much more aggressive in criticizing the administration's homeland security efforts when Homeland Security ranking member Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., takes over the gavel in January. King has been ranking member of the panel for the last four years and was chairman before that.

On border security, King wants legislation that would require the administration to build more physical fencing along the border and step up the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants. The Senate panel is expected to take a more moderate approach, favoring border security measures in combination with changes to the nation's immigration laws.

King is also likely to use his bully pulpit to criticize key administration officials for not recognizing the changing threat of terrorism. He has been especially critical in the past of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

"The terror threat has evolved and in many ways is more challenging now than at any time since 9/11," King said in an interview Monday. "We are seeing an increasing number of attacks and plots resulting from radicalization of individuals already residing in the U.S."

Notably, King said he also intends to hold hearings on the terrorist attack at Ft. Hood, Texas, one year ago.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, have already investigated the attack, in which a lone gunman with ties to American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki killed 13 people and wounded 32 others, and plan to release their findings in the upcoming lame-duck session.

House Republicans might find resistance from the administration in response to their Ft. Hood inquiry, much as Lieberman and Collins encountered during their probe. The senators ended up issuing subpoenas for Pentagon documents the administration would not turn over voluntarily.

"I think the senators decided that [the administration] complied enough to the extent that they can complete their report," Lieberman's spokeswoman said Monday. "They were satisfied with what the administration gave us."

Where the House and Senate committees will find common ground lies in their interest in holding hearings to review what the administration is doing to beef up air-cargo security, protect critical information technology networks, and identify and disrupt terrorist plots inside the United States.

And both committees intend to pass an authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department next year.

An authorization bill has never been enacted, even though the department has grown in size and budget since its creation in 2003. It now has more than 200,000 employees and spends more than $43 billion in taxpayer funds per year.

Not surprisingly, King vowed Monday to stop the administration from closing the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to thwart White House efforts to bring terrorism suspects from the facility to the United States for criminal trials in federal civilian courts.

Again, House Republicans are likely to find common ground with Lieberman and Collins on the issue of handling detainees. Lieberman supports the use of military commissions to try detainees and has been critical of efforts to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

King also plans to press the administration to continue the so-called Securing the Cities program, which maintains sensors around New York City to detect radiological or nuclear devices. The White House has tried to eliminate federal funding for the program.

During the lame-duck session, Lieberman's committee plans a hearing on November 16 on the administration's efforts to improve air-cargo security in response to a failed terrorist plot to ship explosives in cargo packages from Yemen to Jewish centers in Chicago. And the panel plans a November 17 hearing to examine the U.S. government's response to the so-called Stuxnet worm, which affects Windows-operating systems responsible for running critical infrastructure, such as supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, systems.

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