DHS Head Napolitano To Testify Wednesday In Congress For First Time

February 24, 2009 12:00 am

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DHS Should Protect Civil Liberties And Revise Troubling Policies, Says ACLU

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WASHINGTON – Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano is scheduled to testify tomorrow before the House Homeland Security Committee as part of the hearing titled, “DHS: The Path Forward.” The American Civil Liberties Union calls on the committee to inquire into the secretary’s views on key DHS policies, where the balance between security and civil liberties was often skewed under the Bush administration. Employment verification (E-Verify) and Real ID are both areas that need thorough revamping in order to respect the constitutional rights of all Americans.

“It is crucial that as the Obama administration settles in, the president and his departmental secretaries thoroughly examine the controversial policies of their predecessors, including at DHS,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The ACLU has long been concerned with some of the adopt-first-correct-later policies of DHS, such as employment verification and Real ID. Both policies have encountered pushback from those who are affected most: the American public. We hope Secretary Napolitano will provide some indication of her initial findings on these programs and of how she hopes to rein in the policies that too often unnecessarily compromised civil liberties in the name of national security.”

E-Verify is currently a voluntary program where employers can check the citizenship status of potential employees by comparing their records against Social Security Administration files. These files are notorious for being plagued with errors and backlogs, creating significant delays in hiring that are damaging to both the employer and the employee.

Real ID is a national identification initiative hastily enacted following the 9/11 Commission recommendations. It mandates that all Americans obtain new identification that complies with intrusive informational requirements. That sensitive data is then housed in a federally controlled database that could easily become a one-stop-shop for identify thieves.

“Secretary Napolitano has inherited multiple problematic initiatives for which solutions are still needed,” said Timothy Sparapani, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. “E-Verify and Real ID should top the secretary’s list of works-in-progress whose far-reaching consequences demand a thorough examination of their merits. E-Verify could negatively affect anyone hoping to start a new job in the future, while Real ID imperils all Americans’ right to privacy and leads to risks of identity theft. The House Homeland Security Committee should seek assurances from Secretary Napolitano that she will proceed cautiously and seek counsel from those who have been working for years to correct these flawed initiatives. Only then can the American public trust that neither their privacy, nor their safety, is being compromised.”

The ACLU is also concerned about DHS’s involvement in Maryland State Police (MSP) surveillance operations that targeted peaceful anti-war organizations. DHS denied receiving any information regarding the spying activities, yet MSP documents released to the ACLU indicate DHS provided MSP with two activists’ e-mails it obtained regarding peaceful demonstrations planned by the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN). How and why DHS obtained and distributed these e-mails is unclear. Despite the agency’s previous assurances that DHS personnel were not involved in monitoring nonviolent activists, a DHS spokesman quoted in the Washington Post last week indicated this type of information is exchanged between law enforcement agencies “every day.” Moreover, DHS previously indicated that an “exhaustive review” of its records and databases revealed no indication of receiving information regarding the MSP investigations, yet the agency’s participation has been established. This raises the specter that DHS is engaging in inappropriate surveillance without proper record keeping and oversight.

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