Interview with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: 'Away From the Politics of Fear'

Janet Napolitano, 51, is President Obama's new Homeland Security Secretary. She spoke with SPIEGEL about immigration, the continued threat of terrorism and the changing tone in Washington.

SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, in your first testimony to the US Congress as Homeland Security Secretary you never mentioned the word "terrorism." Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?

Napolitano: Of course it does. I presume there is always a threat from terrorism. In my speech, although I did not use the word "terrorism," I referred to "man-caused" disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
AP

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

SPIEGEL: This sounds quite different from what we heard from the Bush administration. How will the new anti-terror policy differ from the previous one?

Napolitano: Our policies will be guided by authoritative information. We also have assets at our disposal now that we did not have prior to 9/11. For example, we are much better able to keep track of travellers coming into the US than we were before. The third thing is to work with our international partners and allies to make sure that we are getting information and sharing information in an appropriate and real-time fashion.

SPIEGEL: This weekend you met in Berlin with six European Union interior ministers. What should Europeans expect of you and the Obama administration?

Napolitano: Well, vis-à-vis working with me, what they can look forward to is a spirit of cooperation and coordination. Our approach will be not so much focused on protocol but on what steps each of us needs to accomplish to make our countries more secure.

SPIEGEL: What would you like to hear from your German counterpart, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble?

Napolitano: The Bundestag (eds note: German parliament) soon has before it a vote to increase information-sharing, on criminal information, with us. This exchange is vital.

SPIEGEL: You would like the German authorities to share personal data of terrorism suspects, such as fingerprinting and DNA?

Napolitano: That is exactly right. We will also want to share some experiences with counter-radicalization, how the radicalization of young Muslims in our countries can be prevented.

SPIEGEL: Europe has a problem with just such people, young Muslims who grew up in the West and are still susceptible to radical messages. The terrorists responsible for the July 2005 attacks in London are an example.

Napolitano: In some ways, the problem in Europe is greater than in the United States. But the questions are the same. How do you identify a youth who is susceptible to becoming radicalized? How do you work with that youth, his family and community to give them alternatives to radicalization?

SPIEGEL: Would you characterize such social measures as a task of your agency?

Napolitano: Yes. In fact, we have group within my agency, the civil liberties group, and they have a focus right now on that issue.

SPIEGEL: Because the US fears that homegrown European terrorists with European passports could enter the country without a visa, for some weeks all travellers have had to via the internet at least 72 hours before departure. Is that not going too far?

Napolitano: Thousands have registered with the ESTA program, and the rate of acceptance is around 98 percent. This new technology enables us to more thoroughly check who wants to visit our country.

SPIEGEL: Should European visitors be prepared to submit even more personal data in the future?

Napolitano: Right now, our focus is on ESTA, as it is.

SPIEGEL: As one of his first official acts in office, President Obama took steps toward closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier signaled that Germany would be prepared to accept some detainees. In your view, how many should Germany take?

Napolitano: Right now, we are participating in a group that is reviewing detainees' files case by case. Once that review is completed, the experts will make recommendations to me and ultimately to the president on what should be done with the detainees. It is of course a very great help if other countries have the willingness to take some of the detainees.

SPIEGEL: As governor of Arizona, you counted on new surveillance technologies to secure the border with Mexico. What sort of technology could you use in the fight against terrorism?

Napolitano: The violence perpetrated by drug cartels along the Mexican border has truly reached a different quality. This is partly fueled by guns that are purchased in the US and then transported south across the border. We scan license plates to help us determine which vehicles we must stop and search.

SPIEGEL: Is the drug war in Mexico truly a danger for the national security of the United States?

Napolitano: What is happening in Mexico now is a huge battle for the control of large geographic parts of the country between the federal government and these cartels. Yes, what happens in Mexico has huge impacts for every American.

SPIEGEL: When you were Arizona's governor, illegal immigration was an important issue for you. Your comment on the idea of a border fence was, "Show me a 50-foot fence, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." Europe hasn't found an answer to illegal immigration. What can Americans and Europeans learn from each other?

Napolitano: That you have to be pragmatic. You have to avoid over-simplification from the far right and from the far left. Ultimately, you need to deal with the underlying immigration law and a reasonable immigration policy. At some point, when the time is appropriate, our president and congress will re-engage on the underlying immigration law. Right now, my task is to make smart enforcement decisions on the law that we have.

Interview conducted by Cordula Meyer

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