GAO: Northern border remains too porous

A new report says the U.S.-Canada border is still too vulnerable to drug smuggling and terrorists.

The U.S.-Canada border remains highly vulnerable to illegal activity and terrorist foot traffic, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report, based in part on an assessment from the Border Patrol, said most of the United States' nearly 4,000 miles of northern border remained vulnerable and only 32 miles -- or less than 1 percent of the total border -- was adequately secure in fiscal 2010. That same Border Patrol assessment reported the agency usually could detect illegal activity on another 1,000 miles of border, but often could not respond because of a lack of resources.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who released the report along with the panel's ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "These findings should sound a loud alarm to the Department of Homeland Security, the Canadian government and our committee. The American people are grossly underprotected along our northern border."

According to GAO, Homeland Security believes the risk of terrorist activity across the northern border is higher than the southern border because there are active Islamist extremist groups in Canada that are not in Mexico. The northern border is much longer than the U.S.-Mexico border and has fewer law enforcement officers, making nefarious activity more likely, the report noted.

Terrorist crossings to and from Canada aren't the only problem, according to GAO and Homeland Security. The U.S.-Canada border also has become a well-traveled route for other illicit trade, including drug smuggling and human trafficking. In fiscal 2010, Homeland Security confiscated about 40,000 pounds of illegal drugs and made nearly 6,000 arrests at posts along the border.

The GAO report focused largely on the joint operations between the United States and Canada, and forums for information sharing among state, federal, tribal, local and Canadian partners in securing the world's largest defended border.

While acknowledging that interagency cooperation improved border security, GAO recommended Homeland Security do more to reap security benefits from its collaborations. The watchdog recommended DHS oversee the various interagency forums to ensure that different department components don't duplicate efforts, or adversely affect the security operations of partners.

Homeland Security also should take a leading role in improving long-standing communication problems between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol, part of Customs and Border Protection -- the two main federal entities responsible for securing the northern border.

The department agreed with GAO's recommendations.