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Don’t Blame DHS

From color-coded terror alerts to FEMA and now, in a Washington Post series, dubiously detained immigrants, there are few bigger Bush administration targets than the Dept. of Homeland Security. But in many instances DHS is working with both the hand that Congress and the president dealt them.

Take the Real ID Act that I wrote about, which sets federal standards for what goes on state’s drivers licenses. Publicly, DHS plays up the program as necessary in the fight against terrorism and identity theft. DHS Spokesman Russ Knocke told me that the ID cards are necessary because nobody wants to say they wanted looser identification laws "before the next 9/11 commission." DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has vowed the program will "kill three birds with one stone" by fighting terrorism, stopping identity theft, and– with data-sharing between states– cracking down on drunk driving.

For their enforcement of the Real ID law, DHS is blasted by state legislatures, civil liberty groups, the travel industry and, well, pretty much everyone beside George Bush. In fact, for granting extensions to the Real ID program, they’re even criticized by hardline conservatives like Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wi.), who crafted Real ID in the first place.

But what choice does DHS have in the matter? As a federal agency, the department implements policy that others create. Certainly on issues of competence and judgment like how flood victims or undocumented immigrants are treated, department officials and staff deserve blame. But it was the president and Congress in 2002 (the Senate 90-9 ), not DHS employees or even Michael Chertoff, that decided one department would prevent the next terrorist attack, respond to all natural and man-made disasters, and enforce immigration policy. It’s not easy to kill three birds with one stone.

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