Image via WikipediaLast night I had the pleasure of having Price Roe from the Department of Homeland Security over for dinner at my home in Madrid. Given my negative views of the Bush Administration, having Price over was an act of political tolerance but two things were in his favor. One was that he was being introduced by my friend Auren Hoffman, and the other that Homeland Security deals with everything that happens inside US borders. If there has been any success since 911 it has been that there have been no further attacks in American soil.

Price and his boss, Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, had to be doing something right to prevent them. I was especially interested in this subject and I decided I wanted to learn more about it since. It seemed fitting, seeing as the focus of my foundation, the Safe Democracy Foundation, has been terrorism and its prevention.

So without knowing Price Roe I invited him over and the results were fascinating: he is not just a great person to deal with, thanks to his visit and our conversations I learned a great deal about the challenges facing security agencies in the United States. Our dinner turned out to be one of those Spanish style dinners that start at 9:30 and go on until 3 am. Americans, who rarely have such long dinners and endless conversations, manage to do this in Spain habits because the jetlag is in their favor. When they are done at 3 am, its 9,pm in Washington (which is the time that dinners end there, from what I have seen) and they are ready to go home. All they need to do when they come here is continue living on Washington time.

So what does the Department of Homeland Security do? Well, the first surprise was that it handles both the management of natural disasters like Katrina with the management of man made disasters like the 911. Moreover, it controls American borders and has many other duties. Overall it has 200K employees who were previously distributed among many other agencies and now act in sync.

For example, until recently, the State Department, which gives out visas, was not coordinated with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services whose duties used to belong to the Department of Justice. There are many cases like this. The Department of Homeland Security also absorbed the Secret Service, which for some reason used to belong to the Treasury. Wikipedia has a good description of how Homeland Security looks like now. Interistingly FEMA is now part of Homeland Security and Price Roe was appointed after the Katrina fiasco to help streamline the agency and be truly prepared for another major natural disaster.

Of the many topics we covered last night, I would like to focus on one in particular, and that is a specific challenge that Homeland Security faces in USA in relation to their counterparts in Europe. Basically, this challenge boils down to the fact that Europeans have, on average, a more favourable view of government.

Americans historically don’t view their government with as much favour. European governments, as a result of the rise in terrorism and crime that started in the 60s (Europe has had German, Italian, French, UK, and Spanish terrorist groups operating at different times in the last 4 decades) have implemented a number of simple national and pan European measures that Americans are only now attempting to implement and with great difficulty. For example, have you noticed that USA is a country that is unusually tough to get into but is incredibly easy to leave? The USA is the only country I know where you only meet customs officials on the way in. In Europe they stop you as well on the way out, so if you have committed a crime. they nail you right then and there. But Price was telling me how hard it has been and still is to convince the Airlines to accept a system by which people who leave the country also have to go through passport control.

This was just a sample of a number of simple measures that we have in Europe and that are either illegal, inconstitutional or practically impossible to implement in America. In the UK, for example, carriers and wifi operators have to comply with RIPA an act so strict that makes the Patriot act look simple. This is something that they don´t have to do in the States. But this is one minor example of the ever increasing police powers that governments get in Europe to the point in which yesterday there was major tension when Gordon Brown once more tried to reduce the civil liberties of the British people for the sake of security. Indeed today there´s a war going on right now because the Gordon Brown government is in the middle of a scandal because in the States for example no agreement has been reached on what should a National ID look like even though Congress passed a law requiring the creation of such ID. Price shared with me a lot of anecdotes that showed how difficult it is for the Federal Government to convince each state to comply with this law. The key is leverage. When the Federal Government decided to raise drinking age nationwide to 21, they told each State that their compliance w didn’t comply, they would lose Federal highway hunds. But what can they tell them vis a vis a National ID. As a result nationwide police has a very hard time simply corroborating people´s identity. In Spain, we now have an electronic National ID that is extremely hard to counterfeit and is machine readable. The US has managed to make their passports machine readable but only 18% of the USA population has passports, according to Price, and naturally, they rarely have them avalaible when they are inside the country. Also, there are many other actions that European law enforcement offices can take that Americans cannot.

European police can stop cars for any reason. American police can only stop them if they have committed a traffic violation. Europeans can arrest people simply for not carrying a national ID. American police can only do that if someone commits a crime without having in ID, but not having an ID in itself is not a crime. Moreover, European security forces have installed video cameras throughout the major cities of Europe that constantly film its citizens. An extreme example of this is the City of London. According to Price, while such cameras exist, it would be extremely hard to get Americans to accept their implementation.

As I listened to Price I was thinking that in ideal world I would want to be an American, mistrustful of a big, over-involved government. However, with things being the way they are, and with the threat that terrorists a government that I can influence and vote for than to be blown up by a terrorist organization. Having said, individual liberties are very important and I think that, for example, the UK is going too far in the direction of ignoring them.

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Peter on June 12, 2008  · 

“Europeans can arrest people simply for not carrying a national ID,…”
so sorry, thats not true in germany. In Germany you are not obliged to carry your ID “with you”. But must have one…. that´s a difference. So you cannot be arrested because of that…

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Jaanus Kase on June 12, 2008  · 

Very interesting. Being an European currently living in America, I agree with most of what you say and share your views on the government. It is thus interesting why is American government sometimes publicly displayed as a tyrannic state (spying on its own people etc) while, in practice, European government are more draconian — and yet, as you say, people are fine with it.

Secret Service was previously part of Treasury because when they were created with 1800s, their first responsibility was (and still is) to fight counterfeit money. All this president protection and other stuff came later.

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Martin Varsavsky on June 13, 2008  · 

So if you don´t have one what happens? You just tell German police one that you have one at home and they let you go?

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peter on June 13, 2008  · 

… friendly policemen will ask for drivers license or something else like this… check this in police-IT…. or they will drive you @home , looking for it 🙂 … there is no obligation to have this document with you permanently, so you cannot be arrested because of this instance alone… but:far away from home .. . it would be better to have it with you … yes.

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Antoin O Lachtnain on June 16, 2008  · 

In the uk or ireland, a car generally can’t be pulled over without some sort of cause. You can also leave Ireland without crossing an Irish frontier (although if you travel by boat or by airline, there’s likely to be some sort of identity-checking. As I understand it, residing non-EU aliens have to carry ID, but not Irish people or EU citizens. (Sounds silly to me too)

The flip-side is that Europeans (and this is generalizing) are much more concerned about abuse of personal data by the private sector than Americans.

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e8563 on June 25, 2008  · 

It was nice to learn that here in Germany we are not obliged to have one’s ID at any time.

Many of the measures taken by European governments can indeed infringe one’s privacy and thus may have positive and negative sides. But I think mere identification of one’s person by the police or other government bodies is no way infringing his privacy. And reliable and fast identification is of great importance for security not only in the context of terrorism but also to combat “common” crime.

By the way, in the modern world it wouldn’t be necessary to carry the ID with you if some biometric data were in some central data base, which could be queried over a wireless connection. Or, actually all data of a country’s citizens could probably be packed onto a portable hard disk.

Though data like fingerprints of DNA can be used or misused to track somebody, I see no way how one can misuse an iris scan.

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