Border crossing by TB carrier prompts DHS, Hill reviews
Agency procedures for handling the threat worked, but individual border officer allowed entry.
Homeland Security Department officials are doing a complete evaluation of government policies for information-sharing, handling watch-list alerts and having trained medical personnel at major ports of entry after a 31-year-old lawyer from Atlanta was able to come across the border from Canada this week with a dangerous form of tuberculosis.
"We will evaluate everything in our process and system to make sure this doesn't occur again," Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Jayson Ahern told reporters Friday. "We're going to look at a variety of different things to make sure the proper protocols are in place."
The Centers for Disease Control, for example, never notified the Canadian government to be on the lookout for the man, said Homeland Security Chief Medical Officer Jeffrey Runge.
Ahern said the incident shows the need for better information sharing and screening systems between the governments of North America. "There needs to be a greater system of sharing throughout North America ... so that we look at ourselves as one continent," he said.
Runge and Ahern said most of the procedures and protocols for dealing with somebody who poses a threat worked. For example, the Centers for Disease Control knew the man, identified as Andrew Speaker, had traveled to Europe. Runge was notified about Speaker and immediately contacted the Transportation Security Administration and had him put on a watch list. A "lookout" alert was sent to all U.S. border crossing stations.
"The information sharing between the CDC and DHS worked," Runge said. "The individual's passport was flagged for a lookout."
But when Speaker appeared at a border crossing station in Champlain, N.Y., a border officer allowed him to enter the United States. Ahern said the officer's actions are under investigation.
"Just because we had a breakdown by an individual doesn't mean we need to throw the system out," Ahern said.
But the incident exposed some potentially serious gaps in border security. For example, only about 20 U.S. ports of entry out of 326 are staffed with CDC medical experts. Ahern and Runge said border officers are given medical training, but acknowledged the officers are not experts on diseases and could have a difficult time dealing with somebody who does not exhibit symptoms.
Ahern said there may be a need to build redundancies into the lookout alert system in case one officer does not act properly. "Lookouts are detailed," he said. "I think in every circumstance there is clear guidance and instruction on how to handle a scenario."
The incident also has prompted reaction from lawmakers in both parties. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has called a hearing for June 6 entitled: "A Poorly Coordinated Federal Response to an Incident with Homeland Security Implications."
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the incident "highlights how vulnerable our security remains more than five years after 9/11 and raises considerable doubts about the nation's preparedness for pandemic influenza and other biological incidents."
She added: "It also exposes how much difficulty there continues to be in sharing information within the federal government and with other nations. Federal agencies can take swift, decisive actions to avert threats only when they have access to accurate and timely information."
Meanwhile on Friday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a Government Accountability Office investigation into staffing levels at northern border crossing stations.
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