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Reporter Notebook: DHS, Five Years On


NPR's Pam Fessler has been covering the Department of Homeland Security since its inception five years ago. She has a lot to talk - lot of time to think about how the United States responds to disaster.

PAM FESSLER: I've been to countless hearings and news conferences these past five years, where my eyes have glazed over, my mind numbed by a wave of bureaucratese - all the things I don't put on the radio.

Unidentified Man #1: The domestic nuclear detection office, DNDO - D-N-D-O - is developing the next generation of radiation…

Unidentified Man #2: SUPB identified short-term initiatives it can implement to address attrition needs.

Unidentified Man #3: The implementation of WHGI facilitative technology and the requirements to present secure documents…

FESSLER: It's at these times I wonder, is this what are enemies are doing? Dealing with acronyms and organizational charts? Worrying about grand formulas? Giving PowerPoint presentations like this one from Homeland Security on first responder ID cards. Here, from slide one, is strategic objective one and I, quote, "establishment of a multi-jurisdictional identity trust model in accordance with existing standards and technology that," well, you get the idea.

A lot of progress has been made building a Homeland Security Department, but it's the people who've stuck with me most. One of the first I interviewed was Diana Dean, the Customs inspector in Washington State, who stopped Ahmed Ressam, the Millennium Bomber, on his way to blow up L.A. Airport. She thought he seem suspicious.

I asked Dean in 2003, what would help her do a better job.

Ms. DIANA DEAN (U.S. Customs Inspector): If we can have one thing here that we don't have that we'd like, we'd have a dog.

FESSLER: Not some multi-million dollar gizmo, just a dog to sniff drugs or bombs. But I checked, and no, they still don't have one. Dean said that no technology was helpful at the border, but one of the best tools was the instincts of those on the frontlines.

Ms. DEAN: You still need that inspector to ask those questions and to hear the responses that you're going to get.

FESSLER: I remembered these all last month, when I went to Vermont and heard complaints that Customs and Border Protection inspectors had less discretion because of new procedures and technology used to screen travelers.

Mr. JOHN WILDE(ph) (Former U.S. Customs Inspector): Now, you get the false sense of security. You'd only have passports that are okay.

FESSLER: John Wilde is a recently retired inspector. He thinks some changes make no sense.

Mr. WILDE: I worked here for 30 years. I drive through the port. And the inspector I've worked with for many years will say, John, I need to see a piece of ID. Why? You know who I am.

FESSLER: But, he says, those are the rules for CBP officers at DHS.

SIMON: NPR's Pam Fessler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.