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Napolitano pledges agency improvements

President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for homeland security secretary says she will revisit a controversial and costly program to enhance the security of driver's licenses.
Napolitano Confirmation
Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.Kevin Wolf / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President-elect Barack Obama's pick to oversee Homeland Security told senators Thursday the agency needs to focus on transportation security and securing biological and chemical facilities in the private sector.

Janet Napolitano, a twice-elected governor of Arizona, said aviation security has improved since the 2001 terror attacks, but more needs to be done to secure transit systems and other modes of ground transportation.

Testifying in her Senate confirmation hearing, Napolitano defended her work on homeland security issues in Arizona and pledged to revisit a controversial and costly program to enhance the security of driver's licenses.

Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that, if confirmed, she would focus on areas that other departments are less engaged in — transportation security being one of them.

"Let's go where the gaps are," she said.

To secure the chemical and biological sectors, Napolitano said Homeland Security officials will have to work with academics in universities and research centers where many of these potentially dangerous materials are held. The department already has a reporting system for high risk chemicals that includes universities and research centers.

Responding to questions about her record on homeland security issues in Arizona, Napolitano took issue with an Associated Press report that said she fell short of her own goals.

The AP cited information from Arizona's homeland security director and other officials acknowledging that at least four of Napolitano's 10 homeland security proposals haven't been completed in the six years since she announced the plan, called "Securing Arizona."

Napolitano said eight of the 10 Arizona proposals were "fully effectuated."

Among the incomplete proposals cited by the AP: Arizona is still updating its emergency response and recovery plan. Firefighters, paramedics and others at disaster scenes still can't always communicate by radio without calling in special equipment.

A new "211" statewide telephone information system was scaled back from original plans due to funding problems that prevented officials from organizing a network of regional call centers. And criminal records still aren't fully available electronically.

Napolitano said only criminal records in rural parts of Arizona aren't available electronically. "We are well on our way to doing that," she said.

She also said funding prevented Arizona from making sure firefighters, paramedics and others from different agencies can always seamlessly communicate by radio at disaster scenes.

"I would hope to take (that) up on an operational way, because I know of no state really that's been able to get to full interoperability," she said.

Napolitano said she would take a new look at REAL ID, a controversial and costly program to enhance the security of driver's licenses. She said the Bush administration did not collaborate enough with state officials in developing the program.

The identification program, which was required by Congress, was launched after the 2001 terror attacks to make driver's licenses more secure. The program has been unpopular in many states, including Arizona, because of the costs associated with upgrading driver's licenses.

In 2007, Napolitano struck a deal with the administration that was supposed to lead to her state adopting the Real ID standards. In June, she signed legislation refusing to implement the requirements.

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said one of the only criticisms of Napolitano was her lack of experience in dealing directly with counterterrorism issues.

Napolitano countered that she was U.S. attorney in Arizona during the Oklahoma City bombing, and her office handled parts of that investigation. She said she also prosecuted a militia group that was planning to blow up federal buildings in the Phoenix area.