A new report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office has found weaknesses at the nation's land borders that increase the likelihood terrorists and other undesirable persons and goods could cross into the United States.
Although information deemed sensitive by the Department of Homeland Security, parent agency of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP), has been redacted in the public report, the GAO, the government's watchdog, gave a broad outline of the problems it discovered.
The GAO reports that procedures, physical infrastructure, and staffing levels used by CBP—responsible for inspecting travelers at air, land, and sea ports of entry— have increased "the potential that national security may be compromised."
During GAO inspections, investigators found CBP agents not verifying the traveler's citizenship or admissibility to enter the country, duties required by law.
Such weaknesses included officers not stopping vehicles for inspection and pedestrians crossing the border without any visual or verbal contact from a CBP officer despite operating procedures that required officers to do so.
CBP management tried to address these procedural issues by holding meetings with senior management to stress the importance of effective inspection protocols and training supervisors and officers in inspection standards in the summer of 2006. However, GAO inspectors twice found—in October 2006 and January 2007—the same weaknesses previously reported. At two ports of entry, the GAO reports, investigators were not even asked to provide the CBP agent with proof of identity.
Another area the GAO report concentrates on is weaknesses in the CBP's physical infrastructure.
At several ports of entry that we examined, barriers designed to ensure that vehicles pass through a CBP inspection booth were not in place, increasing the risk that vehicles could enter the country without inspection.
The CBP responded that it is aware of infrastructure weaknesses and says it needs $4 billion in further funds to make the necessary capital investments at all 163 land crossings for which it is responsible.
The last two issues the GAO identified as contributing to border insecurities are staffing and training problems. The government watchdog says that the CBP may need thousands more officers and agricultural specialists at ports of entry.
According to field officials, lack of staff is affecting their ability to carry out border security responsibilities. For example, we examined requests for resources from CBP’s 20 field offices and its pre-clearance headquarters office for January 2007 and found that managers at 19 of the 21 offices cited examples of anti-terrorism activities not being carried out, new or expanded facilities that were not fully operational, and radiation monitors and other inspection technologies not being fully used because of staff shortages. At seven of the eight major ports we visited, officers and managers told us that not having sufficient staff contributes to morale problems, fatigue, lack of backup support, and safety issues when officers inspect travelers—increasing the potential that terrorists, inadmissible travelers, and illicit goods could enter the country.
To make matters worse, the CBP has problems retaining employees. The Office of Personnel Management's Federal Human Capital Survey attributes the CBP's retention problem to low job satisfaction.
Training programs are another concern. New CBP officers should receive 12-weeks of on-the-job-training. Interviews conducted by the GAO with new officers at one port of entry revealed that some officers received only two to six weeks of training.
Managers at seven of the eight ports the GAO investigated say training is sacrificed for performing their port inspection duties because there isn't enough staff to do both.
For more coverage of this GAO report, see this article from The Baltimore Sun.