Cooperation among border security agencies top challenge for department

Experts of every stripe say that the key to border security is better intelligence and that improving intelligence-sharing within and among border-control and law-enforcement agencies will be a top challenge for the new Department of Homeland Security.

While new federal laws have mandated that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, and the visa-issuing State Department have access to the FBI's criminal database, the inter-agency merging of information has been slow. In fact, State, which has doubled the size of its "lookout" list to more than 50 million people, is the only agency reporting real progress. State has also begun to send to the INS digital pictures of all foreigners who are issued U.S. visas. Both Customs and the INS still have a morass of internal databases to clean up.

Most border-security initiatives since 9/11 have focused either on doing more of the same, such as hiring more INS and Customs agents, or on trying to catch would-be terrorists after they're in this country-a largely futile enterprise, experts say. Federal agencies "cannot possibly enforce more than 10 percent of the initiatives the attorney general seems to be producing every few weeks," says Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington. Of the whole border-security effort, Papademetriou offers far less than a resounding endorsement: "Marginally, it makes us slightly more safe."

Immigration Policy

New immigration-related initiatives continue to be proposals in search of a policy. "We have no policy-coherent or otherwise," Papademetriou says. Immediately before 9/11, the administration had begun pushing for some form of legalization for many undocumented workers. Since 9/11, despite pressure to tighten government control over the nation's borders, the White House has been reluctant to address the problem of illegal immigration, for fear of upsetting Hispanic voters.

Until the government establishes a policy to get some level of control over illegal immigration, experts say, the nation is signaling terrorists to come on in. Some observers argue that legalizing illegal immigrants who are already here would boost national security; others argue for a crackdown on illegal immigration. And tightening the rules for issuing visas is likely to only worsen the problem of illegal immigration.

In lieu of coming to terms with illegal immigration or focusing on how to restructure the INS, the federal government's policy is merely to beef up personnel along the borders: The president's fiscal 2003 budget would pay for 1,730 more INS agents and 800 more Customs agents. They would need to be trained for about a year before becoming part of the nation's defense system.

The security strategy for immigration should stress deterrence, says Susan Forbes Martin, former executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. "The committed terrorist who is willing to risk his life, and everybody else's along with it, will probably find a way to enter," she said. "What we can do is make it harder." That requires, at the very least, enforcing the immigration laws already on the books.

Tracking Foreigners

Most of the INS's post-9/11 initiatives attempt to track suspected terrorists once they're inside this country. And that is too late, experts say.

Two "new" programs-the entry-exit system that logs foreigners as they come into and leave the United States, and the foreign-student-tracking system-were enacted by Congress in 1996. But implementation was halted after interest groups protested. The student-tracking program, slated to belatedly get under way by next January, will probably do little to improve border security, Martin said. But the program will help verify whether foreign students are enrolled in legitimate educational institutions, she added. The most useful aspect of the entry-exit system, which makes no attempt to track foreign visitors' behavior or whereabouts, will probably be that it will give authorities a better idea of which countries' citizens tend to overstay their visas, Martin said.

The Justice Department recently announced, with great fanfare, that it will start enforcing a law that requires foreigners who are here for more than a month to report any change of address. But INS spokesman William Strassberger said not to expect any sort of "national roundup" of people who fail to report in, because it would be impossible to track down all of those foreigners. Former INS general counsel David Martin later said, "If this system is going to be serious and meaningful, they're going to have to put manpower into it, and go out and really look for those people." But even if all the current tracking measures were perfectly implemented, he added, "that's, at most, going to [produce] a very modest gain in safety."

Calling the new policies "playing catch-up," Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said the focus should be on making it difficult for terrorists to operate within the United States. One way to do that would be to require proof of legal status to get a driver's license, open a bank account, and rent or purchase property, he said. Another way, proposed by Rep. George W. Gekas, R-Pa., would be to make it a crime to overstay a visa.

Canada and Mexico

The United States has made far more progress on reaching border agreements with Canada than with Mexico. Details of a 30-point U.S.-Canadian agreement are being ironed out. The United States and Canada are expanding a program called NEXUS, which allows citizens who frequently cross the border to submit to a background check that will free them from waiting in line on every trip.

The two countries hope to enroll 100,000 NEXUS members, but it's not clear how many of the 500 million annual U.S.-Canadian border crossings are made by this group of frequent crossers. Canada and the United States have also agreed to exchange customs officers in order to inspect containers in each country's two busiest ports, and the two countries have improved their informal information-sharing. But the most important challenges are still ahead: sharing terrorist "watch" lists, coordinating visa and asylum policies, and agreeing on a common biometric identifier-such as fingerprints or iris scans-for travel documents.

The less ambitious, 22-point agreement with Mexico-a plan that calls for speeding the flow of legal traffic across the border and for U.S.-Mexican consultation on visa policy-has gone nowhere, say experts who are familiar with the talks. "I'm much more confident about Canada than I am about Mexico," Papademetriou says. Canada realizes that another terrorist strike against the United States could have huge economic repercussions for Canadians. But, Papademetriou says, Mexico is less fearful about the potential effect on its economy, so it sees little reason to cooperate unless it gets something in return-for example, legalization of undocumented Mexican workers in the United States.

Visas and Consular Affairs

The State Department's visa-issuing Office of Consular Affairs-the first line of defense against terrorist attacks on American soil by foreigners-has come under fire because all of the September 11 hijackers had been able to obtain U.S. visas.

Three of the hijackers entered this country through U.S. Visa Express, a program that granted visas through travel agents in Saudi Arabia. After months of pressure from Congress, Visa Express was shut down on July 20. This summer, word leaked out of State that 71 people, some linked to the 9/11 hijackers, fraudulently obtained visas at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar by paying $10,000 bribes. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell ousted the head of Consular Affairs, Mary Ryan. Critics continue to question the practice of assigning the State Department's most junior Foreign Service officers to make decisions about who should be allowed into the United States.

Still, visa officials are now more vigilant, observers say, and State is looking into adjusting its training program to focus it more on keeping would-be terrorists from entering the United States legally. The department has doubled the number of names in its database of suspected terrorists. And in November, State instituted a 20-day waiting period for male visa applicants between the ages of 16 and 45 who come from any of 26 predominantly Muslim countries, in order to allow time for more-thorough background checks. In January, the department began requiring all male applicants in that age range to fill out an additional questionnaire. Experts deride the form, saying that no self-respecting terrorist would fill it out truthfully.

Plus, the Transit Without Visa program, which allows foreigners without visas to stop in a U.S. airport if they are heading to a destination abroad, continues even though there's no system to ensure that these travelers actually leave the United States.

In the pipeline is a plan for adding biometric identifiers-such as fingerprints or iris scans-to U.S. passports and visas. State will also require the 28 countries whose citizens now enter without a visa to add a biometric ID to their passports if they want to remain in the Visa Waiver Program.

State and the INS are reviewing whether to boot more countries out of the Visa Waiver Program. So far, officials have removed only Argentina-and that was because its economy tanked. Italy has come under review because it had a large number of Qaeda cells, but U.S. officials will probably let the country stay in the program if it tightens up its passport controls. The same goes for Belgium, whose citizens have a tendency to lose their passports. Portugal, the most recent entrant to the waiver program, is expected to pass scrutiny. Uruguay will likely be ousted because its citizens rack up a lot of immigration violations. And Slovenia, in order to remain in the program, has promised to add a biometric identifier to its passports.

State Department diplomats have also identified countries whose lax border controls pose the greatest potential threat to U.S. security and have been working with them to improve their practices. For example, the United States is helping Pakistan develop a computerized system that logs foreigners as they come and go. "Almost all the [countries] we've worked with acknowledge they can do better," said one State Department official. But when the United States asked Germany to gather intelligence from its mosques, by, among other things, mounting cameras in them, German officials refused because of civil-liberties concerns.

Leaked State Department e-mails, in which some diplomats accused congressional critics of McCarthyism and neo-Nazism, suggest strife within the department over whether its response to the terrorist threat has been adequate, said Wayne Merry, who spent 25 years in the Foreign Service. "My sense is that the department is not so much dealing with a substantive problem as it is dealing with a public-relations and congressional-relations problem," he said. The responsibility for setting U.S. visa policy is likely to eventually be transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security.

New Technologies

Technology is useful only when applied well. At the borders, it's often used too haphazardly and sporadically to significantly bolster security. High-tech border-control equipment purchased since 9/11 has largely been the same as the gear already in use. Customs has purchased some 40 additional gamma-ray scanners that can detect radiation, bringing the total of such scanners in use at America's border checkpoints and seaports to about 140. Customs also has 4,500 more hand-held radiological scanners, which are used to check cars at the border; that brings the total to 8,500. Still, Customs is able to do any sort of check on less than 2 percent of the trucks and containers pouring into the country. Experts say, however, that the agency is getting better at targeting high-risk shipments.

Other problems remain. New radiological scanners used to check for "dirty bombs" and other threats at seaports are sometimes set off by bananas, because the scanners detect the fruit's potassium. At one busy land port, Customs decided to put its gamma-ray detector in the middle of a six-lane checkpoint instead of somewhere before approaching vehicles split into the six lanes. So when the detector goes off, it's not clear which vehicle set off the alarm. "Even the people who were installing it were talking about how ridiculous it was," said one Customs employee.

The most promising technology would help Customs agents decide what not to scan. A $28 million pilot project, Operation Safe Commerce, will test GPS transponders that can be attached to a sealed container so it can be easily tracked. Inside the container, sensors would detect changes in light, pressure, temperature, or sound that might signal tampering.