Ann Heisenfelt/AP

Homeland security and economic growth are linked, Napolitano says

Annual address notes that department handled record number of natural disasters.

The Homeland Security Department is transforming its approach to security and trade, seeking the “sweet spot” between protecting people and “supporting the economic engine that makes America great,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday.

In her second annual State of America’s Homeland Security address -- televised from the National Press Club -- Napolitano gave a bird’s eye of the agenda of the department she said may have the government’s “most complicated set of missions.”

She outlined progress on improving border protection, issued a social justice-tinged call for immigration reform, described the government’s new priorities to create more passenger-friendly airport security, and promoted disaster response that more rapidly rebuilds American communities.

“Trade with our international partners accounts for roughly one quarter of our gross domestic product,” she said. “In other words, our economy is dependent on our ability to secure and facilitate the flow of people and goods to and from our shores.”

In today’s global economy, a flood in Thailand, for example, can change the price of a computer hard drive, she said, which is why it is so important that “security and economic growth go hand in hand.”

Napolitano also said her 230,000-employee department has “matured, thanks to yeoman work” by her predecessors Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, and now takes advantage of international partnerships in 75 countries, giving it “the third largest international footprint of any federal agency.”

On airline security for both passengers and cargo, Homeland Security has shifted from a one-size-fits-all to a risk-based approach, she said. “If we have to look for a needle in a haystack, it makes sense to use all of the information we have about the pieces of hay to make the haystack smaller.”

She cited the spreading use of “trusted traveler” and “trusted shipping” programs that allow accelerated prescreening procedures that save time and cost. “But we must go slowly and make sure security values are not lost while making it easier for passengers,” she said, stressing the need for balance.

Passenger profiling “is not effective law enforcement, because it is not linked to intelligence and diverts resources,” she said, noting she had consulted on the issue with her offices of privacy and civil liberties. Without divulging sensitive detail, she did say a Transportation Security Administration analyst could “narrow the haystack” by noting that a passenger’s travel routes “might be problematic, without looking at all the people from one country,” and hence could be combined with, say, “a pattern of males age 22 to 50” and prompt scrutiny.

“The Obama administration has undertaken the most serious and sustained actions to secure our borders in our nation’s history,” she said, noting the number of illegal immigration attempts has dropped by 53 percent, while seizures of drugs and weapons are up.

But enforcing existing law is “no substitute for statutory reform,” she said. “Bottom line: Our current immigration system is sorely out of date and needs revision out of fairness of economic necessity.”

On the disaster front, wildfires, Hurricane Irene, floods on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and tornadoes in Midwestern towns such as Joplin, Mo., set a record in 2011 with 99 disaster declarations. “But the American people are a resilient people, and our role is to be part of that resilience,” Napolitano said.

She commended the Federal Emergency Management Agency for using new alert technologies such as social media and DHS as a whole for helping communities and businesses rebound faster by “hiring locally and buying locally.” Some 30 percent of FEMA contracts went to small businesses, she said.

Napolitano praised the use of technology to thwart cybercrime, noting, the Secret Service, for example, prevented $5.6 billion in potential losses through financial crime investigations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “disrupted or dismantled more than 140 transnational criminal organizations capable of laundering more than $1 billion in illegal proceeds and illegally exporting 50,000 pieces of controlled technology.”

The DHS Computer Emergency Readiness Team responded to more than 100,000 incident reports and released more than 5,000 actionable cybersecurity alerts to federal, state, and private sector partners, she said.

Taking questions, the secretary declined to rank threats as though they were “Top 10 basketball teams,” but said, “cyberspace is an increasingly busy area.”

On the current budget austerity, she said, “Well, look, anyone can always get up here and say we can use more resources. The key is will we have what we need to protect the economy.”

She commended department employees for suggesting ideas on finding new efficiencies to “consolidate and better coordinate.” Examples she gave included cutting expensive procurement and information technology and publication subscriptions. “We can get leaner and meaner,” she said.

Asked about her status as a female role model, Napolitano encouraged women to run for office, saying, “despite its ups and downs, it is truly rewarding.”

Having spoken of the “shared responsibility” Americans have for keeping the homeland safe, Napolitano described the objects she keeps in her own emergency preparedness bag, including clothes, water, books and key telephone numbers. “I have the king of ready bags,” she said.