DHS officials deflect criticism over lapses in TB incident

Officials place most of the blame on a single U.S. agent who let the infected U.S. citizen across the Canadian border into New York.

Homeland Security Department officials on Wednesday detailed steps the agency was taking in the wake of allowing a drug-resistant tuberculosis patient back into the United States despite his being flagged as a biological risk.

The officials placed most of the blame on a single U.S. border agent who let the infected U.S. citizen across the Canadian border into New York, but angry House Homeland Security Committee members insisted the system still is not fixed.

"We dodged a bullet," Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said. "When are we going to stop dodging bullets and start protecting Americans?"

Much of the interrogation was sparked by the early assertion in testimony by Jeffrey Runge, Homeland Security's chief medical officer, that "the single point of failure" in its system was the border agent's decision to let Atlanta attorney Andrew Speaker re-enter the country despite instructions to stop him.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham agreed with Runge. "I can't offer a defense for the officer in the field," he said. "There was no excuse for allowing that individual back in the country. It was a clear and absolute disregard of instructions."

Led by Thompson, several panel members insisted the blame should be spread more broadly, and the nation's system for keeping out potentially infected persons need a thorough overhaul. By the end of the hearing, both Runge and Basham agreed that more improvements were needed.

"There was a meltdown here," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., objecting to what she called the Homeland Security officials' "blame game." But Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., disagreed, saying that "There were about 10 places to stop this guy and every one failed."

Runge said the agency is working to quickly raise the level of involvement of Homeland Security, CBP and the Centers for Disease Control.

Speaker's case was noted first only at Homeland Security and CDC offices in Atlanta. From now on, such cases will immediately be referred to the national offices of these agencies, he said.

Another problem is the four-hour delay in putting Speaker's name on the no-fly list after it was discovered he had flown to Europe, Runge said.

Speaker was the first case of deliberately placing a nonterrorist on the no-fly list. Lawyers took two hours to determine whether it would be legal to place a contaminated American on that list, Runge said. Homeland Security officials are also looking at other measures to make sure that there is sufficient backup to a border guard's decision to admit a person who has been identified on a target list.

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