Dept.of Homeland Security marks anniversary

Published on Thu, Mar 11, 2004 by eg Olson

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Dept. of Homeland Security marks anniversary

By Meg Olson

Last week the Department of Homeland Security marked its first birthday and the national commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) came to Blaine to say thank you. “This year, the work, it’s been unbelievable,” he said after meeting with close to 100 CBP employees who last year were members of 22 different federal agencies and now all wear the CBP badge.

Robert Bonner, in charge of the security of all the nation’s borders, was also in town to get a first hand look at a year’s worth of technological and organizational improvements aimed at beefing up local borders. “In terms of the terrorist threat we obviously have some concerns and one of the vulnerabilities is the northern border,” he said during his March 4 tour of the Pacific Highway crossing following the meeting.

Bonner said he has made the border between the U.S. and Canada a primary focus of his new agency, almost doubling the number of inspectors at the northern border while the southern border only saw a 12 percent increase. In Blaine area ports the number of inspectors went from just over 200 to almost 500 and the number of border patrol agents in the Blaine sector, which covers Alaska to Oregon, jumped from 47 to 152.

The new agency’s “priority mission is anti-terrorism,” according to Bonner, and new technologies are being deployed to specifically stop terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States. There are different systems to find bombs, chemical or biological weapons, guns or people

Drivers entering the United States at Pacific Highway or Peace Arch ports of entry now drive through a pair of white towers on their way to the primary inspection booths. “Those are portal radiation monitors, highly sensitive radiation detection systems to pick up not just a dirty bomb but any nuclear material at all,” Bonner said. At Pacific Highway trucks and buses are also scanned. There are now 200 such detectors in service, most of them at the northern land border. To pick up chemical and biological weapons Bonner said the agency’s detection dog program would be expanding, as would remote surveillance systems for remote parts of the border.

Trucks and railcars crossing from British Columbia into the United States are now being x-rayed with three mobile scanners and one stationary rail scanner located just south of Blaine. “Before September 11 we had none,” Bonner said. The local border is home to some of the most rigorous inspection of commercial entries. “This is a critical part of our border,” Bonner said. “We are now screening every rail car entering our country from British Columbia.”

Nationwide 15 percent of inbound containers are getting x-rayed while at seaports the number drops to 5.5 percent, he said. When asked why inbound railcars at the local border, merited 100 percent scrutiny while containers entering the country at the nation’s seaports only were scanned 5.5 percent of the time, Bonner said they did it because they could. “We have a system for rail, why not turn it on?” he said. “If we can do it without choking up the flow of trade let’s do it.”

If CBP insisted on inspecting every container arriving at seaports it would effectively cut off foreign trade, Bonner said. “It’s not a question of percentages – that’s not what’s relevant. We are inspecting all the containers that pose a risk,” he said. Through the Container Security Initiative CBP officers are stationed at a growing list of foreign ports identifying and targeting containers that could pose a risk. “We have extended our border outward,” he said.
Bonner said the expansion of programs that expedite the movement of low-risk goods and travelers will allow his agency to focus on targeting potential threats. Programs like NEXUS for passenger vehicles and FAST for commercial entries add mobility and security, he said, describing as “a mistake” the decision to close the lanes temporarily March 2003 in response to the federal government “orange alert” security level. “The idea of NEXUS is you don’t shut it down if you move to orange,” he said. “That’s contrary to the whole idea.” Bonner said he hoped to see NEXUS expand to a “trusted passenger” program for air travelers. The INS Pass program at airports was shut down following the September 11, 2000 terrorist attacks and remains closed.

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