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Interview with Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson - 2004-03-20

Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), discussed domestic security issues one year after the United States-led invasion of Iraq in conversation with VOA's Jim Bertel.

JIM BERTEL: As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Iraq war, I'm pleased to welcome Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Today does mark the beginning of the Iraq war, a war the President said was essential to the war on terrorism. Since the war's end, we've seen Iraq beset with terrorism, we've seen terrorist attacks in Spain, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and today France's foreign minister said the world is a more dangerous place because of the war in Iraq. Are we safer today than we were a year ago?

ASA HUTCHINSON: "Well, I think absolutely we are. I mean, whenever you look at the attack on America in which 2,000 or more lives were taken in the World Trade Center attack, whenever you look at the fact that almost two-thirds of the al-Qaida leadership has been taken down, and whenever you look at the international response to terrorism, it has been very, very significant. When you look at the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, there has been a tremendous shift. The nations are working together in the area of homeland security, and the war against terrorism is a very important part of making our world safer."

JIM BERTEL: Earlier today the U.S. State Department said it is deeply concerned about the security of U.S. citizens overseas, adding that there are indications that al-Qaida might try to strike U.S. interests abroad. Will the domestic terror warning be raised as a result of this new threat?

ASA HUTCHINSON: "There's no intention to raise the domestic threat level. We look at that intelligence every day, and thus far there has not been any indications that there is credible intelligence that the United States is going to be attacked or that would justify raising the threat level. We'll continue to watch it. And obviously what's happening overseas is causing everyone to be at a more heightened level of security naturally, but there's not any need to raise that threat level."

JIM BERTEL: I'd like to change direction now and talk about several initiatives that you've been involved with at the Department of Homeland Security. This week you announced a new effort to improve security along the border between the United States and Mexico. Is this to prevent illegal immigrants from entering or is this a move against terrorists and drug trafficking?

ASA HUTCHINSON: "Well, our responsibility is not just to protect our borders from terrorists. That obviously is the highest priority for us - to keep America safe - but we also have a responsibility to assure the integrity of our immigration system and that our laws are enforced. And so when it comes to our border security, it is a concern about terrorists, but we also have really virtually a million illegal immigrants trying to enter every year, and we apprehend about that number. Arizona is really a frontier for us, in the sense that we have real challenges there, so we're trying to tighten the border security there in the Arizona area."

JIM BERTEL: Every year, tens of thousands of foreign students come to the United States to study. Obviously, in the wake of 9-11, more restrictions have been put into place. What steps do foreign students need to be aware of in order to assure that they're able to get into this country?

ASA HUTCHINSON: "Well, first of all, even though we've naturally had to put more security measures in place, we continue to welcome our foreign students, our tourists, our business travelers, here to the United States. It's a very important part of our culture and interchange.

For the foreign students, they need to make sure that they apply adequately in advance so that we can do the checks that are necessary. We have an online system in which they have to be entered and the school has to confirm that they're actually going to attend. And then we facilitate their travel through. So we've done a lot to make sure they can come into the United States easily, with security. So we want to send the message that we certainly welcome those and that we'll do everything we can to make sure that they can come here safely and also without any difficulty."

JIM BERTEL: Earlier this week, the European Parliament expressed concern, and is even talking about taking legal action against the United States, over the collection of personal data of Europeans flying to the United States. They say the information can run afoul of the privacy laws in Europe. Are steps being taken to reach an agreement on this?

ASA HUTCHINSON: "Oh, absolutely. We have negotiated for a period of months with some of their data privacy commissions. And Commissioner Bolkestein has been very instrumental in that. We had a tentative agreement that has to be approved by the Commission, the full Commission, and so that process is ongoing. But we believe that what we are doing satisfies the data protection laws of the European Commission. And obviously that information is very, very important for the security of the air passengers, whether they're Europeans or Americans that are traveling on those airways."

JIM BERTEL: We have just a short time left. As I mentioned earlier, European interior ministers and justice ministers held an emergency session today in the wake of the Madrid bombings. And they are taking steps to improve terrorism cooperation. Your department was set up in the last couple of years in the wake of 9-11. What advice do you have for the Europeans in improving their terrorism cooperation?

ASA HUTCHINSON: "Well, we certainly welcome that. And I think that one outgrowth of the Madrid bombing is that all of Europe sees an increased need to even move forward more rapidly than ever their homeland security efforts and their international cooperation. I would encourage them to continue doing what they're doing. They have been very, very helpful to us, by the way. We've had good interchange on airline security issues, comparing information on border security, and biometrics development. I think this will increase that even more.

I hope that each of the countries have something similar to what we have, which is a homeland security department or office, that will concentrate those efforts in areas of security."

JIM BERTEL: Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.