The Truth About US Border Security
“Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Do me a favor, open the door and let ‘em in, let ‘em in.”
Paul McCartney, "Let ‘Em In"
POST 9/11 THOUGHTS
In the years immediately after 9/11 I grew increasingly discontent with our country’s lack of security at our borders. My concern was that terrorists would use the same means of entering the US as other illegals. I believed it was imperative that our borders be secured.
Apparently many in Washington, including the president, didn’t see things this way. Instead of focusing his attention on securing the borders, President Bush pushed for passage of The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, also known as CIRA (S.2611), which would have rewarded illegal aliens with resident status and done virtually nothing to secure our borders.
For some Americans this imperative was as obvious to them as it was to me. These were the Minutemen. All over the country Minuteman groups formed for the purpose of shaming our government into fulfilling its constitutional duty to secure the borders. Men and women volunteered their time and resources serving as observers on our borders to alert Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or the Coast Guard when they saw illegal aliens crossing into our territory. I joined with them, believing at first that maybe it wasn’t too late to push our government into taking action.
The head of our organization put in place the operating principles which duplicated those of every other legitimate Minuteman group:
· Stand down (let law enforcement handle the situation)
These operating principles were established to keep any of us from taking the law into our own hands. As extra ears and eyes for the CBP or the Coast Guard, our role was strictly to report what we observed and get out of the way.
I chose my role in the Minutemen as a recruiter, believing that there were a fair number of people who desired the opportunity to become involved. Over the next 18 months I spoke with groups large and small to inform them of the threat posed to us by poorly protected land and maritime borders; I placed flyers in marinas, bait shops, gun shops and the like. The response to all this publicity was astoundingly poor.
We had volunteer recruiters and fundraisers active in five states and all of us were seeing the same lack of interest. After 18 months of disappointment, the head of our Minuteman group began to talk of disbanding. He could see that too many Americans were unwilling to allow reality to interrupt their lives.
As I worked with the Minutemen I was getting an education. Every day I received email with all kinds of information, including open source intelligence reports. These reports are analyses of publicly available information detailing geopolitical, domestic, military and economic factors that impact American security. Though I used some of this information in my recruitment efforts, what I learned had a far greater impact upon me than upon anything I did with the Minutemen, for I saw more clearly than I could report just how frail is our nation’s security.
When I knew that my time in the Minutemen was coming to an end, I was invited by a fellow Minuteman to become part of an anti-terror/border security organization. I applied for membership and was accepted into this organization. I quickly discovered that the education I’d received in the Minutemen, while solid, was incomplete. Access to a vast wealth of information was mine, so much information that it was impossible for me to absorb it all. After a time, I too often wished that I didn’t know some of what I was learning, and that had much to do with me eventually leaving that organization.
I’m sharing with you some of what I learned while involved with border security/anti-terror efforts and much that I’ve learned through research and continued observation to give you an idea of how vulnerable our borders are to infiltration by terrorists.
BORDER PATROL STATISTICS
It’s routinely reported by the CBP that one in every five people illegally crossing our borders is captured, but this figure is contested by some former CBP agents. John Slagle, a former CBP Special Agent, stated in his 2004 book “Illegal Entries” that “The Border Patrol statistics are that one in five illegal aliens are apprehended and arrested. For agents on the line, they know better-it’s much higher” (meaning much higher numbers escape into the US). Many ranchers living along the US-Mexico border are in agreement, believing the rate of capture to be more like 1 in 10.
This information is corroborated by local news reports from the US cities closest to the border with Mexico and from what I was hearing from fellow Minutemen that had opportunity to speak with CBP officers who shared details with them on condition of anonymity.
Assuming that the yearly reported number of apprehensions is somewhere close to being accurate, we can get an idea of how often our borders are breached with the following table. For each fiscal year (October 1st-September 30th) note the number of apprehensions reported by the CBP. If we capture even 1 in 8 of those who try to enter the US illegally via our land and maritime borders, that means our country’s borders have been breached more than 36,000,000 times during the years 2005-2011. This kind of border security isn’t keeping us safe.
ILLEGALS ELUDING CAPTURE
IN THROUGH THE GREAT WIDE OPEN
US borders are divided into 20 administrative sectors by CBP. The nine sectors along the US-Mexico border are where nearly 99% of all breaches occur. Of these sectors, the Tucson sector (most of Arizona) is the busiest. The Tucson sector holds this distinction in part because agents have a difficult time apprehending illegal aliens in the difficult terrain near the border, and also because the Department of the Interior (DOI) won't cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which CBP is a part.
DOI manages thousands of acres of federal park land near the Arizona-Mexico border with the objective of protecting the environment in these parks. In keeping with this objective, DOI doesn’t allow the construction on its land of infrastructure necessary for CBP to gain even a modicum of control over the border in these areas; in fact, CBP agents are frequently prevented from even patrolling the parks.
The restrictions imposed by DOI allow the parks to serve as ‘roads’ of easy access to illegal aliens and smugglers who trash the parks themselves. Only vehicle barriers may be found inhibiting access to the US through DOI managed lands along the border. Vehicle barriers are the most common type of fencing used along the border in the Tucson sector; they’re also entirely ineffective. Smugglers using vehicles can ramp over them and foot traffic can walk past them. We would waste less money and still obtain no effect if we posted signs all along the border warning people not to cross illegally into our country.
This situation isn’t new. In 2002 DOI issued a report detailing the potential for terrorists to use national parks on the US-Mexico border as corridors to enter our country and to bring in WMDs. Here’s a quote from page 13 of this report: “Virtually all of the lands managed by Department of the Interior (DOI) along the Arizona/Mexico border are sparsely populated with easy access into the United States from Mexico. Terrorist (sic) wishing to smuggle nuclear-biological-or chemical (NBC) weapons into the United States from Mexico could use well-established smuggling routes over DOI managed lands…..The wide open spaces of DOI lands along the Arizona-Mexico border will invite smuggling weapons of terrorism”. This assessment couldn’t be any clearer.
At times DOI does grant border agents access to the parks, a privilege for which DHS pays dearly. According to some Congressional Republicans, DHS has been charged millions of dollars by DOI since 2007 for pre-approved border security operations on its land; the money almost certainly comes from CBP’s budget, thus stripping an already underfunded department of resources needed for securing our borders.
The warnings in DOI’s 2002 report are warnings for today; the “wide open spaces” beckon to all who wish to sneak into the US for the purpose of committing terrorist acts.
During a 2008 interview with the New York Daily News, then DHS director Michael Chertoff commented that he was concerned with “More Canada than Mexico” regards the threat of terrorist infiltration into the US. His concern with Canada is based primarily upon its policies towards asylum seekers, that is, individuals who are fleeing or claim to be fleeing from their native countries out of fear for their lives.
Canadian asylum policies are extraordinarily lenient, a fact that is known to most who seek or claim to be seeking asylum there. Upon reaching Canada, asylum seekers aren’t subject to an initial security or criminality screening, and no matter how they get to Canada, they’re rarely detained. While they wait for their refugee hearing, they’re free to live, work and travel in Canada. In short, Canadian asylum policies favor the asylum seeker above all other considerations, including the country’s security. These policies are a threat to US security also because the US-Canada border remains the world’s longest and least protected border.
Along most of our northern border, CBP has no way of detecting illegal entry; the majority of the 2,200 agents protecting the border, only a third of which are active at any time, are based in the far west, near Seattle, and on the section of the border from Michigan through western New York. We’ve left the remote border lands of the Rockies and the Great Plains mostly unwatched, and the only CBP agents on the Alaska-Canada border are those located at a few ports of entry. Terrorists who successfully exploit Canada’s hospitality can readily gain entry into the US by crossing the border on an unguarded road, of which there are many.
During the same interview quoted above, Chertoff said that “It’s been much more than a dozen" terrorists who’ve been caught trying to cross from Canada into the US. How many were like the Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, having specific plans for destruction? We don’t know. Nor do we know how many terrorists have successfully crossed from Canada into the US and are now part of sleeper cells waiting for their moment to act.
During the mid-90’s drug cartels began using vessels known as Self-Propelled Semi Submersible watercraft (SPSS) to transport cocaine from South America to points in Central America, from where the drug is taken by land or small boats into Mexico for smuggling into the US. The cartels are believed to be using a fleet of at least 100 SPSS.
These 60 foot long cigar shaped vessels remain almost entirely submerged during travel, skimming the surface with only 18 inches of cabin space and the exhaust above the water-line. Their low profile makes them extemely difficult to detect. They can carry 10 tons of cocaine, worth more than $200 million, along with a crew of 3-4 for 2,000 miles. Effective and cheap, costing only 1 million to make, SPSS are a bargain for the cartels.
We do intercept small numbers of these vessels using airborne radar, though we rely heavily upon tips from foreign governments to tell us where and when to look. The vast majority of drug shipments via SPSS make it to their destination in Central America, cruising through either the Pacific or the Caribbean.
The success of SPSS may present us with another problem-their use by terrorist organizations to smuggle terrorists and WMDs directly into the US. It’s a threat taken seriously by experts such as Admiral James Stavridis, who served as commander for US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) during 2008.
During his tenure as commander for SOUTHCOM, Admiral Stavridis wrote a piece for Air and Space Power Journal on the threat posed by SPSS. In that piece he commented that “Semi-submersible, low-profile vessels transport drugs for profit, and they do so effectively. It does not take a great leap to imagine what danger awaits us if drug traffickers choose to link trafficking routes and methods with another -- perhaps even more profitable -- payload. In simple terms, if drug cartels can ship up to ten tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible, they can clearly ship or ‘rent space’ to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction or a high-profile terrorist.” SPSS launched from South America can readily reach the entire Gulf coast from Texas to Florida.
The cartels are continuing to innovate with SPSS. A couple of Columbian engineers were arrested in 2009 after offering to assist the cartels in building remote controlled vessels; such vessels would eliminate the need for a crew. Already in use are ‘torpedo’ type subs; they’re sleek bodied, scaled back versions of the SPSS that can be towed by a boat on the surface while the sub remains submerged at less than 100 feet underwater.
Terrorist organizations certainly have the money to pay for the use or purchase of these vessels, by which they could exploit the weaknesses in our maritime border security that are constantly being revealed by the cartels. Unlike many, I don’t believe it to be ‘possible’ or ‘likely’ terrorists will make use of these weaknesses - I believe it to be inevitable.
THEY’RE ALREADY HERE AND MORE ARE COMING
Despite the lack of security at our borders, the US homeland hasn’t been attacked by foreign terrorist operatives since 9/11. Such attacks have been prevented by good intelligence, successful overseas counter-terrorist operations and luck. But we haven’t been successful in preventing terrorist infiltration.
During a 2007 interview with a reporter from the El Paso Times Newspaper, then Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell was asked questions about the vulnerability of our borders, particularly our southwest border. McConnell told the reporter that a significant number of terrorists were smuggled across our southwest border in 2006. He wouldn’t give a specific number, but he commented that “Some we caught, some we didn’t”. He made it clear that the ones who weren’t caught at or near the border were still free in the country a year after they crossed, and that they would reveal to other foreign operatives the means they used to get into the US.
More evidence of terrorist infiltration comes from two federal court cases opened in 2010. The defendant in each case participated in human smuggling operations that all together were responsible for smuggling more than 500 illegal aliens into the US.
One of the defendants was Ahmed Muhammed Dhakana, a Somali caught while trying to cross the US-Mexico border in 2008. When caught he claimed he wanted asylum, but authorities soon found out he was part of a human smuggling ring out of Brazil-a ring believed to have smuggled more than 250 men from Somalia and other parts of Muslim dominated east Africa into the US between ’08-’09. Among these men were individuals with ties to the Somali-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab (‘The Youth’), which is aligned with Al-Quada; Dhakana admitted to authorities that he didn't know their exact reason for wanting to enter the United States, but cautioned that he believed "they would fight against the US if the jihad moved from overseas locations to the mainland".
The other defendant was a natural born American, Anthony Tracy, who converted to Islam while in prison here in the US. After his release from prison he went to Kenya where reputedly he worked with a corrupt Cuban embassy official to help nearly 300 Somalis obtain fake documents allowing them to travel via Cuba to Central and South America, from which they made their way into the US as Tracy had encouraged them to do. Tracy was charged and convicted with participating in a human smuggling ring, but was released after his trial, details of which are few. Court records do tell us that Tracy told an associate via email that "I helped a lot of Somalis and most are good, but there are some who are bad and I leave them to Allah".
These three scenarios give us just a little insight into what kinds of people are getting into our country because our borders remain poorly secured. Yes, they’re already here, and more of them are coming because we’ve not made border security a priority. Through our willful neglect, we’re all but ensuring that attacks like those launched on 9/11, or attacks of even greater magnitude, happen again, killing many thousands of Americans.
Sources from which I used direct quotes, listed in order of their use:
For an interactive map with more aerial photos of the US-Mexico border go to: