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Transcript of "Pen & Pad Session" with Secretary Napolitano

Release Date: 
March 20, 2009

Washington, D.C.

Moderator:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It's good to see you all again.  It's been awhile since we've done one of these.  So thanks for -- thanks for coming out.

We -- we have about 25 minutes or so and then we're going to have to head out to our next thing.  So we will start.  The Secretary will make some brief remarks and then we will open it up to questions.  So.

Secretary Napolitano:  Thanks, Sean.  Thanks.  Good to see everybody again.  Thanks for coming out to the -- to the NAC.

I thought what I would do is just briefly summarize some of the things that I've been working on since we last met here and then, as Sean said, answer whatever questions you have.

I think, to begin, we're obviously very focused on the situation in Mexico.  I receive daily briefings from the components on their actions and initiatives at the border and I occasionally call the agents themselves who have seized guns and who have seized cash as we increase our efforts there.

To give you one example, Operation Armas Cruzadas in just one week, March 7th through 13th, seized 997 firearms that were headed south into Mexico.  So those efforts continue to increase.  Just yesterday, Customs and Border Protection intercepted $300,000 hidden in a spare tire at the border in El Paso.  This morning I met with Minister Gómez-Mont, who is my counterpart in Mexico.  We are working very closely with the Mexican Government to ensure our mutual  security and in light of that, on April 1 through 3, I will go first to our Southwest border and then I will -- and I'm going to go to the Port of Entry in San Diego.  Then I will be traveling to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to attend the Arms Trafficking Prosecution and Enforcement Strategy Session and then I will go to Mexico City.

I know some of you want some exact numbers of what we're doing to augment our forces on the ground.  Let me just preempt those questions and say that there will be further announcements on those in the coming days.

In addition, as I said at my last briefing, there has been in this department a contingency plan should we see a great spike in border-related violence as a result of what's going on with the drug cartels in Mexico.  That plan was prepared but did not have input from the state and local law enforcement officials who actually police the border area.  So I've sent Ted Sexton from the department down to the border, he's there now, to go through that plan and make sure we have their input.  As a former border governor, I know how important it is to link up with and intersect with the efforts of state and locals in the border area.

So that is just a brief, brief summary of what's going on vis a vis Mexico.

Germany.  I was just in Germany over the weekend for a meeting of what's called the G6+1.   I'm the +1.  The G6 are key European allies.  This is a group that basically it's Ministers of the Interior and Homeland Security, people who have a similar portfolio, similar set of responsibilities that I have.  It was set up to discuss our cooperation in dealing with terrorism and the issues of terrorism in our countries.  It's obviously expanded to include some additional issues, as well.

One of the things we did do there was sign a national agreement with Germany to exchange research and technology that is specifically related to security and that is one of a series of binational agreements we've now signed on the science and technology front.

Next, FEMA.  A couple of things on FEMA.  I was in the Gulf Coast for a couple of days.  We are now following up on that visit.  In fact, I have my senior team back in New Orleans today.  What we are working on doing is putting in place a process to kind of unclog some of the money to get some of these projects finished and where we can't come to agreement about what the amount needs to be to get an arbitration process in place and get some agreements made.

Next week, on Thursday, I'll be traveling to Port Arthur and Galveston in Texas, Hurricane Ike.  They're having some of the same issues with respect to monies for their long-term recovery and getting those through the process.  So this will give me an opportunity to meet with individuals there, local officials and the like, and see for myself what is happening and then we can put together an action plan about what we need to do.

We're obviously getting prepared for the next hurricane season.  It starts coming up pretty closely now.  We are meeting with governors in states that have hurricanes and the like in terms of preparation and then, of course, the president now has nominated Craig Fugate to be the head of FEMA and we look forward and hope, assuming he is confirmed, that he'll be able to join us relatively quickly.

In addition to those things, there are the ongoing matters of the department and all the components, some of which you're very familiar with, but I think it gives you a sense of -- here's a phrase that I never used before I moved back to D.C. but I kind of like it.  The battle rhythm of the job so far.

With that, I'll open it up for questions.  Yeah?

Question:  Madam Secretary,  --

Secretary Napolitano:  Can you speak a little louder?

Question:  Okay.  Randy Mikkelsen with Reuters.  Can you please discuss the agenda for this Arms Trafficking Conference?  Do you expect to move some policy initiatives or advance -- advance the U.S. means to control the shipments?

Secretary Napolitano:  Yes, I think -- I think we'll be moving forward or discussing several items, and I think Attorney General Holder is also going to be there.  So it's the same -- it's the same meeting.

But one is what we can do to better intercept weapons that are going south from the U.S. into Mexico, not only with U.S. but also with Mexican Customs, and what are some of the security equipment, things that we can put in the ports there that will help us better detect whether arms are being taken illegally into Mexico.

Secondly, facilitating the tracing of guns that are actually used in crimes in Mexico and make sure that that is being done on -- on a very, very real-time basis as opposed to guns being seized during some of these huge violent incidents in Mexico that get put in a warehouse and nobody knows where they came from.  So those are two areas I think specifically that I will be part of.

Question:  Is there sort of illegal activity on the U.S. side in supplying those guns?  Are there things you  can do -- I mean, are there crimes that can be prosecuted here in terms of supplying those guns, and do you agree with some of the lawmakers -- I think Attorney General Holder indicated during a congressional hearing that he would support an assault weapons ban.  Is that something should be part of the Administration's agenda?

Secretary Napolitano:  I think what we need to do is be -- there are existing laws that can be used to prosecute these gun crimes in the United States, particularly if you're selling to someone who obviously is a straw purchaser.  There are patterns of illegal gun sales.  That's one of the reasons you want to do tracing, so you can see if large amounts of these weapons are all coming from one or two similar sources, you know, that sort of thing.  So there's lots you can do on the investigation and prosecution side under the existing laws. 

The key thing is to improve our -- and to keep improving on our -- our interdiction of the weapons before they even get in there.

Yeah?

Question:  Cam Simpson from the Wall Street Journal.  You talked about the necessity to go after some gun dealers and to bring prosecution cases.  The case in your state was just thrown out --

Secretary Napolitano:  Yes, I saw that.

Question:  -- by a judge and it was a state-prosecuted case with federal involvement that they took to the state instead of the federal court.

So I want to get your comment on that, and I also want to ask you about the plan you inherited from Secretary Chertoff.  Do you think it's essentially a good plan, it just needs to be vetted a little, or do you see significant changes?

Secretary Napolitano:  I can't comment on the case in Arizona, and I thought it was interesting, too, that it was in state court and not in federal court.  But there are -- I mean, I've done gun prosecutions, both as a federal prosecutor and as a state prosecutor, and there are a variety of statutes you can use in these kinds of situations, and I don't -- but I can't comment as to what were the particular issues in that one.

No, I think the plan basically has -- is -- you know, has key elements in it that -- that you need, but in my view, the one element that was missing was, you know, input from state and locals in light of the current situation now and so that's what we're going out to gather.

Yes, at the very end.

Question:  So describe to us in your mind what would be the tipping point or the trigger point (inaudible).  If you could just sort of flesh that out just a little bit.

Secretary Napolitano:  Well, I'd like to but part of me cautions against doing that and that is because then people play all kinds of games with that.  That's one of the reasons why I don't like, you know, firm guidelines on what size of dope cases you take to prosecution because then everybody plays games with that.

I think it will be a combination of increase in -- it will be keenly involved with a noticeable increase in violence coming over into the northern side of the border.

Question:  Kidnapping has started to soar.  When you first started to characterize the cases, was it just thug on thug violence still roughly or has it really started to weave into other things?

Secretary Napolitano:  Yeah.  I'm actually going to testify on -- on this next week in the Senate and -- and again you have to appreciate where I'm coming from which is someone who's been dealing in this area for a long time.

But what is going on is several things simultaneously.  One is the cartels fighting over ever-more restricted turf and so a lot of this is -- you call it thug on thug but it is what it is, but -- and then another is the major effort being put forth by the President of Mexico to break up these cartels, to begin with, and that is causing them to react.  That reaction is -- is primarily in Mexico and that's, you know, that's where you see these huge spikes of violence against law enforcement and public officials in the northern states of Mexico.

But the cartel on cartel, the drug organization on drug organization violence is upticking in the border areas and that's why we've been talking and have regular now call set with those border police chiefs and sheriffs because they can really tell us, look, we -- we really can't handle this, we -- we need -- we now need a much larger federal contingent to back us up and also why I've sent people from my office to the border right now to get a sense of, okay, what are we really seeing.

But make no mistake.  I mean, there is a big safety interest for the United States in this battle, be it conducted in Northern Mexico or within the United States.  The only issue is, you know, at what level do we pull in the worst case scenarios and we're not to the worst case scenarios yet.

Yes, in the gray.  I'm sorry.

Question:  Jeanne Meserve, CNN.  The governors of Texas and Arizona, along those lines, asked for money to pay for National Guard.  Have you given them an answer yet?

Secretary Napolitano:  No, we haven't.  That's one of the reasons I'm not giving you some numbers today, because, as you correctly point out, there are several departments beyond mine that are now part of this issue on Mexico, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the White House, although I don't know if you'd call the White House a department per se, but -- but -- but what I can say is that at the very highest levels in different places now, we're coming to grips with what operationally should be done in the near term and what we should be planning for.

Yes?

Question:  Madam Secretary, Ginger Thompson with the New York Times.  I understand that several groups have been meeting here and in Homeland Security to talk about the border and border security.

Can you tell us a little bit about those meetings?  What agencies, what are all the agencies involved, and when will the comprehensive plan be announced and by whom?

Secretary Napolitano:  Within the Department of Homeland Security, it is my office, including me, it is CBP, it is ICE, it is Coast Guard, it is I&A, Intel & Analysis, and Ops, but that gives you a sense of the component meetings.

Question:  Madam Secretary, one of the -- one of the --

Secretary Napolitano:  The answer is --

Question:  When are we going to get the comprehensive plan and who's going to make the announcement?  We thought you might make some of those details public today.

Secretary Napolitano:  Yeah.  Yeah.  No.  It will be -- I can't tell you the answer to that.  All I can say is as soon as possible.  It's now being -- going at the highest levels.  That's all I'll say.

Question:  Madam Secretary, one of the real issues that border violence, according to some law enforcement and intelligence people, has created is opportunities for other people and projects to get into the United States.

How would you assess the ability to prevent that from happening or to deal with people trying to sneak into the States, that kind of threat?

Secretary Napolitano:  Talking like a terrorist?  I mean, what are you talking about?

Question:  You could call it that.

Secretary Napolitano:  Okay.  Yes, I mean, one of the -- you know, a safe and secure border is a high Homeland Security issue.  Can you prevent a hundred percent of illegal crossings along a huge multithousand mile border, either north or south?  Common sense says no, but you have to do everything within -- within reason to get there, and --

Question:  That's my --

Secretary Napolitano:  -- we are putting huge resources now into the border.

Yes, Tom?

Question:  You mentioned a moment ago that the key is to improve the interdiction of guns before they get to Mexico.  There's been talk about doing searches on cars.  Who do you envision might be done as far as searching cars on their way south across the border?

Secretary Napolitano:  There are a variety of ways that technology enables us to -- to -- to make a determination whether a car should at least be referred to a secondary inspection.  Scanners, scales, you know, that -- those kinds of concrete things at the border tell you, well, okay, is a car heavier than its model would indicate it should be?  That -- that would be something that -- that a border agent could -- could use as an indicia that, yeah, we should probably do a secondary, those sorts of things.

Question:  Is that happening now?

Secretary Napolitano:  Yes, there is some of that happening now.  License plate readers where we look and see whether license plates on cars that there are warrants out on or have been reported as stolen.  Those are out there now.  What we're doing now is -- is really expanding on those efforts more widely across the border.

Question:  When you say expanding, what do you mean by that?

Secretary Napolitano:  Again, let me just say there will be more on that announced very shortly.

Yeah?

Question:  Can you please define “spill-over violence” and tell us whether we're seeing any?  Because last week Roger Rufe said that there hasn't been any and then in a [Newsweek] interview he said they're starting to see some spill-over violence.

Secretary Napolitano:  Yeah.  I think that kind of -- let me tell you what I -- what I mean by it.  What I mean by it is in -- are we seeing spill-over violence of the type associated with the war of the cartels against the Mexican Government coming into the United States, targeting of police, U.S. law enforcement, you know, U.S. public officials?

We have on one or two isolated instances seen targeting of a Mexican official who came over to the U.S. side while he was on the U.S side but we haven't really seen the former, the way you see -- have seen in the northern states of Mexico this last year.  That's one form of spill-over violence.

Another form is are we seeing an uptick in drug cartel on drug cartel-type crime in some of our border cities?  The answer there is we are seeing some and the primary example would be kidnapping in some cities.

Does that help?

Question:  Yes.

Secretary Napolitano:  Okay.  Yeah?

Question:  Madam Secretary, I'm sorry, I came in a little late.  I wanted to know if there's been personnel, U.S. personnel, not just Customs agents but ATF and other agents assigned to the border.

Secretary Napolitano:  Yeah.  What we're doing now is -- is looking at how we redeploy assets to the border and the answer is that it's going to be -- you know, this is a major effort and we can -- we are doing a lot now.  We can do more.

Yes?

Question:  Is ATF actually setting up a new project or deploying its resources to investigate this because it's my belief anyway that they're the principal agency as far as tracing guns and --

Secretary Napolitano:  That's right.

Question:  -- other related distribution --

Secretary Napolitano:  That's correct.

Question:  -- means.  What about the idea of using the regular Army at some point to follow those other routes?  Is that on the table?

Secretary Napolitano:  That -- your question about ATF, you're exactly right.  That's why, when I said, look, at the very -- now you've got Justice, ATF, FBI.  You've got Department of Homeland Security, CBP, ICE, Coast Guard.  You've got the White House.  You know, all these places here have to be working in concert with each other, but I've met with the Attorney General about these issues.  Our staffs have met.  We have met with other members, you know, people in the White House and so forth.  So that's the last part of this that is now coming together and like I said, I forget who wanted the question -- oh, Ginger.  You wanted the question.  You wanted it like today.  Are you answering it today?  The answer is not today, but it is moving very rapidly and that's really all I'm comfortable saying now.   I'm sorry?

Question:  The regular Army involved in this?

Secretary Napolitano:  Yeah.  Well, the -- the real issue -- the issue is -- is National Guard right now and that is something that is under consideration by the president, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, and we're not prepared to give an answer quite yet.

Yes?

Question:  Can you help give a little more finer reading on why now?  You mentioned in January that, you know, this was something that you had noted to see at the top of the pile.  Was it events on the ground, new intelligence that said it looks like the Joint Forces have been in November, a 25-year report forecast in November, a request by Mexico, the Calderón Government, a policy decision by the Administration, their election coming up in July?  Can you talk about why this has emerged at the top of the pile at this time?

Secretary Napolitano:  I think it's all of the above.  I think it's been -- it's been a growing situation in Mexico and I think it's been a combination of the things you named, plus the press beginning to cover what's been happening in Mexico in our papers up here, so it's getting greater attention by electeds beyond electeds in the border area that we're seeing this.

But in my view, this is a very, very important issue.  It has Homeland Security aspects to it.  It has safety aspects to it.  We have citizenry who live along the border, but it also has impacts on the interior of the country, as well.  So we all have an interest in this, and then again, you know, Mexico is our close neighbor and this is a huge battle that is being waged by the president of Mexico.  We want to provide him the assistance that we can.

Moderator:  Time for about two more questions.  Stewart?

Question:  Madam Secretary, I just want to ask you whether the new Administration has essentially re-evaluated the national security risks along the border.  Under the Bush Administration, they focused on illegal immigration and drugs coming across.  Under your Administration, they're very much focusing on weapons.

Secretary Napolitano:  Yeah.  We're still focused on immigration and drugs.  It's not like we exchanged one for the other, but, you know, two years ago, three years ago, you didn't see this level of violence in Northern Mexico.  So you've got to deal with the changing threat environment.  I mean what was done two-three years ago may not be what needs to be done now.  What needs to be done now may not need to be done two years from now.  So we've got to always be thinking what needs to be done now, what do we need to be preparing for likely events in the future.

Question:  Are we getting to the point where Mexico will be on the list of narco-states?

Secretary Napolitano:  No.  Indeed, what is impressive right now is the strength with which the Federal Government of Mexico is combating these cartels and it is, you know, that effort that we want to provide assistance for.

Question:  Do you think there's a case to be made for revisiting the Merida issue, too, focusing on the aspects of judicial reform that have existed with Mexico?

Secretary Napolitano:  Well, Merida, as you know, is -- is housed at the Department of State, but I think that Merida will -- will be one of the tools in the tool box that is employed in this effort vis a vis Mexico.

Question:  Is that part of the problem, Madam Secretary, that the Mexico portfolio, you know, touches on so many agencies?  Is the Administration at all thinking about housing them all, you know, particularly, you know, security, so that it's not State and Department of Justice and Homeland Security but sort of creating a Mexico Security Czar?

Secretary Napolitano:  You know, I don't know about that.  I mean a lot of the issues I deal with involve many agencies.  I mean that's just the problems of today don't really match up with government, you know, organizations of -- that we have in a way.  They -- they -- and so one of my tasks is to be able to work with my colleagues on the Cabinet, with the White House, and with others and to recognize, you know, there are things Homeland Security will be doing,  there are things that are going to impact the Department of State, impact DOJ and so forth, and that's -- that's -- you know, that -- that's the effort that's going on now, is to make sure that we all know what each other is doing and are speaking with a consistent voice.

But -- but if I had to sum up where we are, it's that this issue's getting top attention in multiple departments of the U.S., that planning is well underway and that we are having extensive discussions with our federal colleagues within Mexico and it is really focused on assisting the Mexican Government with their fight against the cartels.  One facet of that assistance is looking at what we can do to stop cash and guns, and you guys didn't ask me about cash which is kind of interesting, from going south.

One aspect of it is supporting our state and local law enforcement along the border and being ever prepared to respond with more resources should we see spill-over violence in the way I described it to you occurring.

Okay.  Thanks, guys.

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