By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Aiding the Mexican government's fight against drug cartels is a top priority that demands the "utmost attention" of U.S. security officials, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said yesterday, announcing new steps aimed at preventing the spillover of violence into the United States.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón's sweeping crackdown on narco-traffickers has triggered a desperate backlash of violence "of a different degree and level than we've ever seen before," Napolitano said in her first appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee. "It is something that deserves our utmost attention right now," she said.
Napolitano said she has reached out to national security adviser James L. Jones, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and local and state law enforcement officials to review ways to assist Mexican law enforcement; stop the flow of guns, assault rifles and cash from the United States into Mexico; and identify areas in which more resources might be needed.
Napolitano's remarks came as top Obama officials signaled a new approach in tone and substance to homeland security, concentrating their focus at the nation's borders not just on combating illegal immigration but on fighting criminal drug organizations, for example, and initiating a broader shift in how the government is organized to counter terrorism.
According to a senior White House security adviser, President Obama and Napolitano understand that "we have to address the threats that emerge from the world we live in," including increased economic instability, rampant violence resulting from drug trafficking as well as the presence of terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On Monday, Obama issued the first in a series of national security policy review directives, outlining his expectations that the White House's Homeland Security Council -- set up by President Bush in 2001 -- will be integrated with the National Security Council, with increased authority to address a broader range of international and domestic issues, including terrorism, organized crime and narco-trafficking.
"I believe that Homeland Security is indistinguishable from National Security," Obama wrote.
At the same time, Napolitano omitted the word "terrorism" from her prepared remarks for the three-hour hearing, referring instead to the department's mission of protecting the nation from a range of man-made and natural disasters.
House Republicans reacted to the change in tone, cautioning that any "little bit of backpedaling on focus on terrorism. . . doesn't turn into wholesale retreat," as Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) put it.
Still, others welcomed the focus on Mexican drug violence.
"It is a state of war," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). He noted that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) called Tuesday for 1,000 additional federal troops or agents to be sent to the state out of concern that security along the border was inadequate.
U.S. intelligence officials as recently as yesterday restated their assessment that drug-related corruption and violence against government leaders and the military have limited the Mexican government's authority. More than 6,000 deaths last year were attributed to the crackdown, twice as many as in 2007, with an additional 1,000 killings this year, Napolitano said.
Meanwhile, Holder announced the arrests of 52 people yesterday in California, Minnesota and Maryland in a takedown of U.S. citizens with ties to Mexico's deadly Sinaloa drug cartel. An additional 700 suspects were arrested earlier in the 21-month Operation Xcellerator. He said the flow of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines is accompanied by cartel violence on both sides of the border.
"They are a national security threat," said Holder, who with Napolitano met Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza in Washington this week. "We simply can't afford to let down our guard."
Staff writer Carrie Johnson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.