Heil Hitler the police state is not moving fast enough.

  Heil Hitler the police state is not moving fast enough.

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Anti-terrorism plans fall behind schedule
Mike Madden
Washington Bureau
Mar. 10, 2007 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Passport regulations. Secure IDs for port workers. Computer systems to track foreigners entering and exiting the country. Now, national standards for driver's licenses.

The Department of Homeland Security's announcement last week that states could get up to two extra years to develop "Real ID" licenses intended to prevent identity fraud makes that program the latest security initiative that could fall behind schedule.

In some cases, the still relatively new department has simply missed its own deadlines. In others, Congress has pushed back due dates, or private industry or state governments have successfully lobbied officials to slow projects they oppose.

But five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security authorities are still trying to find the right balance between moving quickly to fix potential vulnerabilities in the nation's defenses and making measured, carefully considered decisions with input from many parties.

It's a balancing act that some critics say requires a better effort from the department.

"This (long) after we'd been attacked at Pearl Harbor, we had finished the fight in Germany and we were finishing the fight in Japan, and World War II was about over," said David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Project at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Last fall, the department had to put off for two weeks a long-awaited requirement that air travelers show passports when arriving in the United States. The reason? The Homeland Security failed to publish a regulation in time.

Lobbying led to delays in the mandate for passports at land borders and requirements for Real ID licenses, which would standardize driver's licenses across the country.

Officials at the department say they're well aware that delays in security programs could be dangerous.

"You have to be smart about how you go forward in implementing new security measures," said Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman. "You certainly don't want to burn down the village in order to save it. That being said, we live in a world where there are very dangerous people who are still seeking to attack us, and we feel very strongly that, on each of these initiatives, you run a greater risk when you kick the can down the road."

Department officials say they have achieved quite a bit since their doors opened in 2003. The department set up programs to handle aviation security, launching the Transportation Security Administration and standardizing checks of air passengers before boarding. All checked bags are now screened for explosives, as well.

Homeland Security also now requires countries whose citizens don't need visas in advance to enter the United States to use "e-passports" with fingerprint data stored in them. On immigration enforcement, the agency met its deadline for ending a policy of releasing non-Mexicans caught entering the country illegally, and arrests of non-Mexicans have fallen since then.

Still, the department has often fallen behind on implementation timelines for projects experts regard as crucial.

The chief problem with the Real ID driver's license program came when state governments objected to its potential $11 billion cost and said they couldn't meet the requirements Congress imposed when it wrote the law. But Homeland Security officials also delayed releasing proposed rules for how states would implement the law. The department did not release the guidelines until last week, just 1 years before states were supposed to begin complying with the law.

The 9/11 Commission, created to analyze the tragedy and recommend ways to prevent disasters, pointed out potential problems with driver's licenses three years ago, saying the federal government needed to set standards to keep people from getting fake IDs that could be used to board airplanes or get immigration documents.

Authorities worked with state officials to propose the Real ID rule and then announced that they would grant an extension to the May 2008 deadline until December 2009 for states that needed one. But the consultation that led to those compromises helped delay the proposal of regulations.

A former staffer for the 9/11 Commission, Janice Kephart, said delayed implementation was better than nothing. Congress was considering repealing or indefinitely delaying the program before Homeland Security officials began working with states.

"In this particular case, they didn't have much choice," Kephart said. "To save the 9/11 Commission recommendations, they had to compromise quite a bit."

That dilemma illustrates the problem facing officials as they try to move forward.

"Things actually seem to be slower because what the department's learned as they've gotten more mature is that there's a lot of people they need to check with," said James Jay Carafano, who studies homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

"If you get a solid program and it's 18 months (in the making) as opposed to six months (for a flawed program), we're better off," Carafano said.

"Having a program in place doesn't close the vulnerability. Closing the vulnerability closes the vulnerability."

Reach the reporter at mmadden@gannett.com or 1-(202)-906-8123.