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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Asa Hutchinson
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February 5, 2004

Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson will be here soon. Thanks for dropping by and make sure to submit a question.

Asa Hutchinson
Good to be here. Let's take your questions.

Ryan, from Lansing MI writes:
The US-VISIT program must be implemented at the 50 busiest land ports by December 31st of this year, yet the northern border has a complete lack of infrastructure for exit tracking. Will the US consider reaching an agreement with Canada to use their primary customs inspection for exit tracking?

Asa Hutchinson
That is an option we have discussed with Canadian authorities. We are first concentrating on VISA travelers and that will have limited impact on the Canadian borders since Canadian citizens are VISA exempt in most circumstances.

Maricriz, from Atlanta GA. writes:
Dear Secretary Hutchinson, Under the US VISIT Program, and the biometric identifiers being sought out, why are not voice biometrics discussed more? We are aware of over 200,000 low risk prisoners who are using a voice biometric application. Are they any plans to look at piloting a voice biometrics application for border patrol and even to positively identify those using the Mexican MC card?

Asa Hutchinson
We work with International Standards and most countries are comfortable with fingerprints and facial recognition. As technology develops, other types of biometrics will be considered.

Will, from Lexington writes:
Secretary Hutchinson, Thank you for taking questions today. My questions is this: How concerned should Americans be with "dirty bombs" or other weapons entering the country through sea ports, and what type of inspection takes place at ports to prevent such imports? Thank you

Asa Hutchinson
We should be concerned with any type of radiological device. Even though a dirty bomb is generally conside5red not to have the potential to have mass casualties, it would still cause significant environmental and psychological damage.

We do have radiation detection equipment at our seaports including personal detection monitors worn by all customs and immigration inspectors and larger container type portal monitors.

Jeff, from Port Fernandina, FL writes:
Asa Since becoming the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation, have you visited Port Fernandina? It is a critical port and one that is doing exceptionally well at security efforts. We invite you to come down. We think it is a good example for the U.S.

Thanks for considering the invitation

Asa Hutchinson
I have not been to Port Fernandina but would welcome the opportunity. And I'm very pleased that the Port is doing well at security efforts.

Jason, from Springfield, MO writes:
Sir: Securing our nation's transportation systems against terrorist attack must be a major homeland security priority. With so much attention focused on seaport and airline passenger security, what initiatives are DHS pursuing to secure air cargo?

Asa Hutchinson
For the first time, we have required inspections of air cargo in addition to system-wide requirements to protect the integrity of air cargo. We are continuing to increase our air cargo security with additional requirements on the carriers and private sector cooperation.

Stella, from NY, NY writes:
Regarding the US-VISIT program, have the databases of the different immigration agencies been integrated yet? I remember there was a story out a couple months ago which doubted they would be in time for deployment.

Asa Hutchinson

Yes, they have been integrated under US-VISIT. This program was deployed on time within budget and exceeded the Congressional requirements for security. We just finished the first phase at our airports and we'll continue to integrate these databases for use in our land ports of entry which is the next phase of US-VISIT.

US-VISIT is a mandate from Congress to integrate our databases for our inspectors at our ports of entry and to check in and check out our international visitors. This is the first requirement was for our airports and seaports and the 50 busiest land ports. At the airports, we added for the first time biometric requirements (finger-scan) for our international visitors with Visas. This confirms identity and also checks against terrorist data bases.

Since January 5, we have denied entry for over 30 criminal aliens seeking entry into our country. They tried to come in under false documents but we caught them through the biometric of fingerscans.

Holden, from Arkansas writes:
Hi Mr. Hutchinson, Thanks for doing such an admirable and difficult job in protecting our borders. I was hoping that you might shed some light on whether you might run for the Senate in the hopes of continuing your great work in the Congress.

Thanks and keep up the wonderful work.

-Holden C.

Asa Hutchinson

Not this year because I have committed to the President and Secretary Ridge to finish establishing our border security efforts and the Department.

Leslie, from Virginia writes:
The American Association of Port Authorities with the $46 million for port security grants because it is not enough.

They are quoted as saying, "Public ports' financial resources pale in comparison to the sizable needs. Ports are working diligently to comply with security regulations, but without adequate federal assistance the hidden danger is that our country's economic foundation may suffer the ultimate blow."

Will you suggest increasing the amount of the grants?

Asa Hutchinson
The port security grants are a high priority and in the '05 budget includes 1.9 billion for DHS wide port security efforts. This is not all grant money, of course, but shows the substantial investment in port security.

In addition, we recognize that port security responsibilities must be shared between the federal government, state port authorities and the private sector. In fact, many of the last round of grants totaling over $170 million went to private industry to support their enhanced security measures.

Michael, from California writes:
How does this administration strive to balance the need for good security with the individual rights of citizens? If there is a side to err upon, which side is it?

Asa Hutchinson

We will never infringe on constitutionally protected rights in order to accomplish security. There is always a balance to maintain and we have a chief privacy officer that was congressionally mandated and a civil rights officer that exercises oversight in achieving this balance.

A specific example would be information from airline passengers on their date of birth and address. This is of some concern to privacy advocates but this type of information is necessary to assure the safety of flights.

But we commit to protect this type of information in the event that it is required to be obtained.

Judy, from Bloomington, MN writes:
When will the administration start concerning themselves with the safety of Postal employees who transport, sort and deliver the mail? If transportation and borders are obviously not secure how can we rely on the administrations claim that America is now a safer place?

Asa Hutchinson

There has been a substantial investment in the monitoring of postal facilities as a result of concerns from the bio-threat. This is directed at postal employees' safety as well as security issues. Regretfully, in today's environment there is always a risk for public servants on the borders and even private employees in the transportation arena.

It is our job to minimize the risk for all citizens, including the Postal employees.

Lisa, from Beavercreek, OH writes:
Mr. Hutchinson, I was wondering if you could please explain why President Bush, nor any other president, has not put military troops on the borders of the United States. It seems to me that the number of people flooding this country each year is extremely troublesome. I understand that people come here to get a better life but my main concern is that a terrorist will find out how "easy" it is to cross the border either in Mexico or Canada and gain his entry that way. Why not station troops on the borders?

Also, I read today that the Coast Guard was able to stop a 1950s car that was made into a boat from landing on a beach in Florida. What is the strangest "vehicle" people have used to cross the ocean into the United States?

Thank you for all of your work.


Asa Hutchinson
On the military troops on the borders, I think we would all agree that our men and women in uniform have their hands full with the deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other hot spots around the globe.

The military does support our border effforts with intelligence, with different types of surveillance and equipment support. But the day to day law enforcement functions are unique to our border agencies and not a traditional military role.

In reference to the strangest vehicle, the 1950s car, is probably at the top of the list. But I did see a 1950s model half-ton truck surrounded by innertubes loaded with aliens trying to make it into Florida. This was stopped by the Coast Guard. It certainly demonstrates the ingenuity of those seeking freedom and the attractiveness of all that we offer in the United States.

Kathleen, from Maryland writes:
Could you please clarify how visa waiver countries are chosen under the new US-VISIT program?

Asa Hutchinson

To qualify as a visa waiver country, you have to demonstrate that you have a low rate of visa denials and that you have various security measures in place for your passports and other travel documents. That is why a visa waiver country has more security protections than a country that is still required to issue visas for their travelers to the US.

We do recognize some vulnerability in the current system and that is why we are going to require machine readable passports to qualify as a visa waiver country with a biometric component feature. The deadline is October 26, 2004 but it appears that very few countries are prepared to meet that deadline.

We are working with Congress to see if the deadline should be extended and what other security requirements should be put in place in the event that this happens.

Ralph, from Oceanview,N.J. writes:
Dear Mr. Hutchinson, If a toxic substance like ricin cannot be rendered safe by irradiating it, as it would biological agents, how does Homeland Security deal with rendering the ricin harmless? Thank you.

Sincerely, Ralph

Asa Hutchinson

I would refer you to the Center for Disease Control web site that gives information on the specifics of ricin including links to facts of chemical decontamination. We have determined that there is no public health risk to the Senate incident. And the investigation continues with the FBI having the lead.

There is not any indication at this point that there is any international terrorism link to this incident.

Peter writes:
Dear Mr Hutchison Why the process for security clearance for immigrants who applying the permanent resident is take time very long and do you have any solution for that except to take more budget. Thanks

Asa Hutchinson
Our goal is to reduce the backlog for immigrant applications to six months. It is partly a resource issue and it is substantially a systems challenge. And in addition, there are security clearances required. Our country is in a transition on security matters and as our systems improve, our time delays will decrease.

Cathy, from Falls Church VA writes:
I read that Customs is corrupt in this article and wonder what you are going to do about it. It says that customs officials are helping drug dealers and people who smuggle aliens. It could just as easily be weapons. Government officials are doing this for money. It better stop. Here is the article:


Asa Hutchinson
Our customs officials who are now under Customs and Border protection are of the highest integrity and do outstanding work. There are always a few bad apples who make a headline for corruption. We have a very aggressive inspector general and internal affairs department that investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by Homeland Security officials. I do not believe it is a significant problem to diminish any hints of corruption.

Asa Hutchinson
These are terrific questions and log on to our web site: -- for additional information. Thank you for your interest and I look forward to the next occasion.

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