Coast Guard Drops In on Lawbreakers
The U.S. Coast Guard calls them "vertical insertion teams," but they're informally known as "fast-ropers." The service recently added the ability to speed members of their enhanced maritime safety and security teams onto unwelcoming ships. Eight personnel can board a boat in less than 30 seconds.
First, a helicopter will swoop in low. Then, the team members will be "50 feet in the air, and they'll walk into space holding nothing but a rope and slide down," said Cmdr. Steve Torpey at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference. The tactic will be employed against "noncompliant" boats, he added. But once they're on the boat, there's no way for the helicopter to lift them off.
"These guys know going down that there's only one way off," Torpey said. Team members will have to wait for a support vessel. Fast-roping differs from a vertical deployment, which uses a hoist and harness and takes three to four minutes.
Fast-roping is another tactic that is transforming the service into a more military-like operation, Torpey said. Enhanced maritime safety and security teams have already successfully used light machine guns on helicopters to stop drug runners.
Before, smugglers knew if they waited out a helicopter, it would eventually run low on fuel and be forced to return to its home base. Now, the crew has the option of flying alongside a boat and shooting out its engine, forcing it to stop. The boat will be dead in the water until a cutter arrives. There have been 60 such interdictions so far, with more than $4 billion worth of illegal drugs seized, Torpey said.
Chief Medical Officer's Role Pondered
Dr. Jeffrey Runge is the Department of Homeland Security's first chief medical officer, but questions remain on what roles the leader of the newly created office will undertake if the nation should come under a biological attack.
"You have a great title, but chief of what?" asked Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security's management, integration and oversight subcommittee at a recent hearing.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff created the chief medical office last July to coordinate medical preparedness activities inside the agency and between other departments such as Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Center for Disease Control. It is part of the DHS' new preparedness directorate. Prior to creating the position, DHS had no centralized medical structure.
Runge, a physician before entering public service, became the department's first chief medical officer after leading the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for four years.
Runge told congressional leaders that he will provide "direct and unfiltered medical advice" to the secretary and develop a strategic plan for filling gaps in the department's medical readiness plan. During his first month on the job, he sat in on several interagency meetings preparing for a potential flu pandemic. His office will also be tasked with examining DHS' medically related grants to state and local governments.
Meek and others on the committee were skeptical that Runge could fulfill his duties with a $2 million per year budget and a staff of 10. He will have no authority or role in Project Bioshield, a $6 billion, 10-year HHS program designed to boost research and create effective countermeasures to potential domestic biological attacks, Meek pointed out.
While the role of the chief medical officer is still a work in progress, Runge said, he can be a voice for the medical community inside DHS. He also would like to implement plans to educate the public on biological disaster preparedness. At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he was responsible for taking the "Click it, or Ticket" safety-belt campaign nationwide.
Meek warned Runge that the public would need a clear and unified message if a biological disaster should strike. Recent cases of terrorism alerts proved confusing when different parts of the government sent different messages. "We don't want people pointing in 10 separate directions when it comes to lights, camera, action," Meek said.
Divorce for FEMA; Marriage for Customs?
As a new year begins on Capitol Hill, rumblings are beginning for some structural changes in the Department of Homeland Security.
First up may be a merger of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two different agencies with similar tasks that appear to be at odds with each other, according to a DHS inspector general report.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, charged to be the investigative arm of the DHS' Border and Transportation Security Directorate, was formed from bits and pieces of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Federal Protective Service and Federal Air Marshal Service. Customs and Border Protection came from the Treasury Department's Customs Service and the Department of Justice's Border Patrol.
The inspector general's report paints a picture of two bickering children under DHS parentage. The sibling rivalry is causing a decline in information sharing and coordination between the agencies as well as frustrations within employee ranks. The overlapping goals are weakening efforts to apprehend and deport illegal aliens, the report said.
Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, who requested the report, said they will consider legislation to merge the two. "These two agencies are dysfunctional in their current structure," Collins said.
As for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, calls have come from left-leaning think tanks in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster to divorce the agency from DHS and give it cabinet-level status.
"It does matter where you sit in the cabinet," Susan Rice, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said at a Center for American Progress forum on combating catastrophic terror. Such standing would give the head of the agency easier access to the president, she said. No lawmakers have come forward to support the notion yet.
Visa Malfeasance Eyed
A Government Accountability Office investigation of 11 U.S. consulates in six countries found that half of them were not following proper procedures to guard against visa fraud on the part of U.S. officials.
While the number of consulates inspected was small - there are 211 posts charged with issuing roughly 5 million visas per year - the failure to follow procedures designed to thwart corrupt officials from stealing blank forms or abusing the system for financial gain, is a risk to homeland security, the GAO report warned.
The State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security uncovered 28 visa irregularity cases from 2001 to 2004.
"Internal controls make it difficult for an employee to commit visa malfeasance without being detected, but, despite these safeguards, visa malfeasance does occur," the report said. Such criminal activity could permit unqualified individuals, "including those who wish to do our country harm," to enter the United States, the report added.
Six consulates failed to carry out quarterly inventories of the supplies needed to issue visas.
In a response to the report, the State Department said inventories are tracked on a daily basis, and that staff sometimes skipped the quarterly accounting because it was redundant.
State also needs to speed up development of automated software that can spot anomalies in visa issuance, the report said.
However, some of the difficulties in prosecuting corrupt consular officials cannot be overcome with software alone, the report said. Diplomatic security officers cannot obtain search warrants for overseas offices or residences. Obtaining financial records from foreign banks is also difficult. Only 10 of the 28 malfeasance cases detected resulted in successful prosecutions. Changing the rules for search warrants would require an act of Congress, the report noted.
HAZMAT Law in Line for Changes
Efforts are underway in Congress to revise a section of the U.S. Patriot Act that governs which truckers are allowed to transport hazardous materials.
The act requires truckers carrying HAZMAT licenses to undergo background checks and be cleared by the secretary of homeland security from being a security risk. The Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, outlined the new regulations in 2004, but they have been derided by truckers, carriers and congressional members from both sides of the aisle ever since.
The TSA regulations require truckers to travel to a designated state agency or contractor to submit to a background check and fingerprints. Traveling hundreds of miles to the site can cost a day's pay, plus a $94 fee. Meanwhile, truckers seeking similar clearances to haul cargo for the Departments of Energy and Defense can go to their local police departments and have their fingerprints taken there for less than $20.
Stephen Russell, representing the American Trucking Association at a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing, said only 10 percent of members have applied for the endorsement so far. They see the process as intrusive and costly. Since there is a nationwide demand for truckers, they can easily find a job transporting non-hazardous materials. A shortage of HAZMAT drivers is inevitable, he said.
Questions remain also on what kind of crimes can cause truckers to lose their HAZMAT endorsements. "Fraud" is on the list of crimes, which includes the relatively common infraction of writing bad checks. Truckers can face rejection for mistakes they committed 10 years in their past, congressional critics charged.
The definition of "hazardous materials" also needs a second look, congressional leaders said. The list includes dozens of items that cannot be weaponized, everything from nail polish remover to soft drink syrup.
"Coke syrup? Do we need to have that on the list as a potential terrorist threat?" asked Daniel Lungren, R-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee on economic security, infrastructure protection and cybersecurity.
TSA, Army Test Bomb Detector
The Transportation Security Agency, along with the Army and at least one domestic public transit system, are among those exploring the use of neutron-based sensors to detect bombs, biochemical agents or illicit drugs sealed in metal.
Irvine, Calif.-based High Energy Technologies, Inc. recently received a $338,668 contract to integrate a stoichiometric CarBomb Finder on the Army's SmarTruck platform, that is being field tested this year at the Army Tank - Automotive and Armaments Command, in Warren, Mich.
TSA also has asked the company to produce a proof of concept to incorporate the technology into a baggage screening system.
Stoichiometric technology bombards selected targets with neutrons causing the contents to emit gamma rays that contain unique signatures.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority has purchased the SIEGMA 3E3, a suitcase-borne version of the detector, to inspect abandoned packages.