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There is no fast or easy solution to immigration reform. Competing interests agree on little, except that the current system desperately needs repair. What is not in debate is the need to improve border security, of which immigration is merely one component of the problem. For many in the homeland security and intelligence communities, a pressing counterterrorism concern is smuggling, especially of radiological material from Mexico and Canada. Despite the volume of goods arriving via container ships at seaports such as Long Beach, Calif., and Miami, a significant amount of cargo enters at land crossings from Canada and Mexico. Much of this cargo originates elsewhere. Because the sheer volume of traffic moving across the land borders prevents the physical inspection of every truck, train or container, homeland security officials have come to rely on technology, whenever possible, to keep up with smugglers and their ever-changing techniques. Beginning in 1998, the U.S. Customs Service (now known as Customs and Border Protection), issued portable radiation detectors to inspectors at some U.S. ports of entry. These devices-which actually may be worn by the user-detect the presence of radiation. It is then the responsibility of the inspector operating the detector to determine the source of the radiation, which might be as benign as lawfully transported medical equipment or as sinister as the radiological component of a dirty bomb. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has deployed additional radiation detectors at ports of entry throughout the United States. Many of them are large-scale fixed-position devices that scan vehicles as they enter from Canada or Mexico. Recent GAO investigation The effectiveness of this technology-and the manner in which it might be circumvented by terrorists-was the subject of an investigation conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in December 2005. The plan was neither ingenious nor especially sophisticated: Masquerading as a legitimate business, a GAO investigator purchased radioactive material and storage containers over the telephone, directly from a commercial vendor. The GAO also created fictitious bills of lading as well as fake Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) documents that, according to the GAO’s report, “authoriz[ed] the individual to receive, acquire, possess, and transfer radioactive sources.” Examples of the NRC documents were located on the Internet. With the cover complete and documents in hand, two teams of investigators crossed the northern and southern border on the same day. They transported the radioactive material in the trunks of their rental cars. The homeland security technology performed properly-correctly alerting to the presence of a radiation source. The Customs and Border inspectors operating the detectors, however, were less effective. Although inspectors on both borders conducted secondary inspections of the vehicles and asked the undercover GAO investigators general information, they made no attempt to validate the fictitious cover story or scrutinize the authenticity of the purported NRC documentation or bill of lading. The GAO concluded that its investigators were permitted to enter the United States with enough radioactive material “to produce two dirty bombs.” The GAO exploited the fact that some radioactive material can be purchased from commercial suppliers without permits or prior clearance from the NRC. But the “success” of the GAO hinged on the failure of the Customs and Border inspectors to exercise appropriate due diligence in light of the facts in front of them. Given the nation’s continued vulnerability to terrorism-highlighted most recently by yet another round of recorded threats from al-Queda’s top leadership-such failures are unacceptable. Responsibility does not begin or end with the border inspectors. Assuming they followed standard protocols in dealing with a radiation alert, fault also rests on those who developed those protocols in the first place and those who strategize about threats and ways to mitigate them. When the 9/11 Commission issued its report nearly two years ago, the commission suggested that the nation’s security and intelligence establishment suffered from a “failure of imagination.” It is fortunate that the imagination necessary to dupe the system and fraudulently import radiological material across the border was conceived by the GAO exposing a correctable weakness, rather than al-Queda. But exposure of one weakness is not tantamount to a remedy for others. If border controls are not improved, our enemies will find the holes in walls, such as they are, and exploit them for a future attack. Steven Roberts, an NLJ columnist, is a homeland security consultant.

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