September 11 Commission member John Lehman Thursday criticized so-called "sanctuary" practices in Houston and elsewhere that restrict cooperation between local police and federal immigration officials as an invitation to terrorists looking to enter the United States.
"It is ridiculous that five cities in the United States do not allow local police to cooperate with the federal immigration service," said Lehman, visiting Houston to lobby for Sept. 11 commission report recommendations.
"The terrorists know" which cities have such policies, Lehman said, naming Houston and Los Angeles among those cities.
Local officials deny that such policies exist here. Nonetheless, Lehman said fuller cooperation between city and federal authorities on border security issues did not have to become a campaign against illegal immigrants.
"We don't have to go on a jihad against illegal immigrants to make the country safer from terrorists ... There are things you can do to allow the benign immigrant to pass with ease ... "
Houston City Councilman Gordon Quan, who has been a strong advocate of policies designed to prevent discrimination against illegal immigrants, said, "Houston has never said it is a sanctuary and declared it would not work with federal immigration officials."
Quan said a tougher city police posture toward illegal immigrants could actually make it more difficult to identify potential terrorist interlopers.
"We need the cooperation of immigrant communities who can help identify people who might be a problem. If we are arresting and harassing them, they won't come to us."
The Houston Police Department has a policy of not arresting a person or making any inquiries about the person based solely on possible immigrant status, said Lt. Robert Manzo.
The department will contact federal immigration authorities if a person is arrested for a criminal violation unrelated to his or her immigration status, and will assist the federal authorities if formally requested.
Sanctuary policies have come under increasing scrutiny since Sept. 11. New York City scrapped its policy in 2003 after negative publicity from a rape case involving some illegal immigrant men who had been arrested previously but not referred to federal immigration authorities for deportation.
Manzo said Houston's policy allows the police to report an immigrant who commits a crime to federal authorities.
Lehman, traveling as part of a nationwide effort by the commission to gain public support for the recommendations in their 567-page report on the Sept. 11 attacks issued last month, also said Houston had "real concerns" of possible terrorist attacks aimed at the city's energy sector.
"There has been a lot of planning and surveillance" involving the refineries and petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel, Lehman said.
He said he was aware of no specific threat to the Houston area, but noted that al-Qaida often spent years on planning an operation before executing it.
The commission's report recommends reallocating anti-terrorism dollars to reflect the threat but Lehman said the commission did no analysis on whether Houston should receive more federal funding support.
Both President Bush and Democratic contender John Kerry had made "good starts" in embracing the ideas of the commission, Lehman said. But he also said the president's plan for a national intelligence director must change to gain the panel's approval.
The Sept. 11 commission would not endorse Bush's version of the director without an important change to give the intelligence czar authority to set intelligence budgets, he said.
"I'm very confident that the commission members would not endorse a figurehead that did not have budgetary authority" and other powers not granted in the president's plan, said Lehman, during a meeting with the Houston Chronicle's editorial board.
"It would be worse than doing nothing."
Lehman hastily added that he believed the president would reach the same conclusion, as the debate over the precise powers of a new top intelligence official evolved.
So far, the White House statements about a new national intelligence director have not wavered since Bush announced Monday that he was accepting the idea, but with some modifications.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said Monday that although the new intelligence director should have "an awful lot of input" into developing the estimated $40 billion annual intelligence budget, and the intelligence agenda, the "agenda will be set by the president and the budget will be set by the president."
Lehman said Bush was at a disadvantage in swiftly embracing all of the commission's ideas.
"It's easy for a presidential candidate who in good faith can say 'I accept it all' because he doesn't have to persuade everybody. The president can't just run roughshod over the acting CIA director and the secretary of defense," Lehman said.
Among changes proposed by the commission is a major restructuring of the way Congress oversees the intelligence gathering process and its budget.
A thicket of Congressional committees and subcommittees with overlapping responsibilities needs to be wiped out, with a single joint Senate-House intelligence committee taking central control.
That the 10-person commission of five Democrats and five Republicans reached a complete consensus in the final report surprised Lehman.
"When we started, I'd have bet 1,000 to 1 we'd end up with a split report with minority views and footnotes," he said. "We ended up with no dissent."
The commission will visit nine cities by Aug. 18, when the tour ends, pitching the message that the report's recommendations should be adopted without major alteration.