The movement of illegal immigrants or narcotics through a tunnel under a U.S. border is a felony, but there are no laws on the books preventing the excavation itself.
Bipartisan legislation aiming to close this loophole has been introduced in both houses of Congress.
“Many people are astonished to learn that constructing tunnels across the border is not already illegal,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is co-sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Eight tunnels have been discovered in the San Diego area since the beginning of this year. Forty have been found so far, with 39 along the southern border and one under the northern border.
Some are simple “gopher holes,” only a few feet long near a fence. Others are sophisticated, well-engineered constructions replete with lights, pulleys, drainage and ventilation systems, and well-hidden entrances.
One of the largest was discovered near the Tijuana airport in January. Its entrance on the Mexican side was located under four tiles in a warehouse office. Law enforcement confiscated 2,000 pounds of marijuana on the Mexican side and 300 pounds on the U.S. side.
The bills will make it a federal violation to build or finance a tunnel. Judges could hand down sentences of up to 20 years. Those who “recklessly” allow a tunnel to be built on their property may face up to 10 years. The proposed law would also double sentences for those who use tunnels to smuggle aliens, contraband or terrorists.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to improve tunnel detection. Joint Task Force North, out of Fort Bliss, Texas, has a unit dedicated to applying technologies used in the civilian sector for mining and other geological applications to the esoteric field of detecting underground passageways.
Army Lt. Col. Steve Baker, chief of tunnel detection operations, said the small unit does not have the resources or the ability to randomly hunt for tunnels along the vast southern border.
“We go to areas where law enforcement has some idea that something is going on,” Baker told National Defense.While there are about six different methods for tunnel detection that can be applied to a search, conditions along the southern border make the task challenging.
High mineral content, for example, causes ground-penetrating radar to reflect back. Urban environments, where many tunnels have been detected, are also problematic. Underground pipes and utility lines give false readings, and background noise near cities makes sonar readings tough.
Members of tunnel detection teams, many of whom volunteer for the duty, are also subject to attacks by smugglers, similar to those suffered by Border Patrol agents. They’ve had rocks and dead animals tossed at them from the other side of the border.
“We’ve had all sorts of different stuff thrown at us out there on different occasions, including Molotov cocktails,” Baker said.
While the U.S. intelligence community struggles to create inter-agency links and eliminate the barriers that prevent them from communicating and preventing another terrorist attack, some officials have sounded an alarm on a problem few considered: too much unfiltered information.
Linton Wells II, the Defense Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense of networks and information integration, said John Negroponte, the head of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, told him agencies were sending out data like “spam.”
Intelligence gatherers are tossing unfiltered information “over the transom” to the center in order to cover themselves in case an event does take place, Wells said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference on network-centric operations.
This is creating a “fog of information.” Even the predictions of “Australian psychics” were finding their way to the center, Wells said.
Overall, the intelligence community is doing a better job of sharing information although there are still pockets of resistance, Wells said.
Clark Smith, director of the information sharing environment technical group in the office of the director for national intelligence, said the process is more complex than simply distributing memos and reports far and wide.
There is the risk of an “echo effect” where one piece of information on a possible terrorist attack goes out in a memo and it is suddenly repeated in a half-dozen other reports. The readers may believe there is a wealth of confirmations, when in fact, the intelligence is derived from only one source.
The challenge is “to track where the information is coming from, who is deriving it from what, and how the conclusions are being made,” Smith said.
If the information derived from an echo effect prompts an orange alert when none is necessary, the nation will unnecessarily spend its resources, he said.
“Information sharing is about pushing data out, but pushing it in ways that the people who need it can digest it, based upon their role and responsibility,” Smith said.
As the hurricane season approaches, the Defense Department has attempted to reduce the time it would need to mobilize troops to respond to a domestic catastrophe, said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.
While some units were being mobilized as Katrina approached the coast, it took about five days after landfall for the 72,000 military personnel to be fully fielded, McHale told an NDIA conference. While this was the fastest deployment to date in response to a domestic emergency, and the Pentagon largely escaped the criticism the Department of Homeland Security suffered, “it was not the result of superior planning,” McHale said.
Since September, the Defense Department has put a good deal of effort into drawing up plans to respond to major disasters, he said.
Some units should be able to mobilize 24 to 48 hours more quickly than last year, McHale said. He reiterated that the department will be called in only when major emergencies overwhelm local first-responders.
Pentagon planners have identified 15 such scenarios, including earthquakes, hurricanes and terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.
A hurricane similar to Katrina, compared to a simultaneous WMD attack on multiple cities, would be on the “low end of the scale,” McHale said.
DHS Pushes for Its Own Joint Command
The Department of Homeland Security has asked Congress for $50 million to organize a joint staff office to tie together its 22 agencies.
The national preparedness integration program would be modeled on the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to George Foresman, DHS undersecretary for preparedness.
New legislation is not needed to authorize the program. However, the department would need the funding to set up the office and hire additional personnel, he said.
The purpose will be to provide a “thread” between the agencies that is lacking now, and break down barriers while preserving agencies’ unique cultures and identities, he said.
“We can’t ask the Secret Service to stop being the Secret Service. We can’t expect the United States Coast Guard to stop being the United States Coast Guard,” Foresman said at a National Defense Industrial Association homeland security conference.
There is, however, a “desire for jointness” among the agencies, Foresman said.
“It’s not a big bureaucracy; it is an integration shop,” Foresman said, adding that it will be used to coordinate efforts with state and local agencies as well.
Reports of turf wars between the agencies have emerged since its creation in 2002. A DHS inspector general investigation found discord among Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The rivalry has caused a decline in information sharing and frustration among employees, the report said.
Congress put DHS together believing integration would strengthen security, now “we need more tools to make sure that happens,” he said.
Chemical Security Legislation Moves Slowly
Among the new laws passed in the years following the 9/11 attacks, chemical plant security has so far been left out. Legislation to harden such facilities has been introduced every year since 2001, but the bills have gone nowhere.
Authority over chemical plants shifted from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security. However, that “authority” is almost nonexistent, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
DHS has identified 3,400 facilities as posing possible hazards to the public. It was tasked in 2003 with writing a chemical sector-specific plan to assess vulnerabilities and develop programs to prevent, deter, mitigate attacks as well as recovery plans if a plant should come under attack. So far, the report is unfinished, and DHS does not have a timetable for when it will be released.
And even if it did have a report in hand, the department does not have congressionally mandated authority to enforce any actions.
“[DHS] has relied primarily on the industry’s voluntary security efforts,” the report said. “However, the extent to which companies are addressing security is unclear.”
DHS lacks the authority to require chemical facilities to implement security plans and its representatives could not enter a facility without the company’s permission to inspect or enforce regulations.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, introduced in December the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005, the latest draft legislation to address these shortfalls. As of April, the bill had not been marked up. The committee has been preoccupied with Hurricane Katrina, holding 21 hearings since September.
Among the potential sticking points is a requirement that the chemical industry develop safer chemicals and technologies that would lessen the risk to the general public if an accident or terrorist attack should occur. The draft legislation does not include such a provision, while the GAO recommends that it should.
OMB Watch, an nonpartisan group devoted to keeping tabs on the Office of Management and Budget, called the bill weak and criticized a clause that would allow the federal legislation to supercede state laws. New Jersey passed strict laws on chemical plant security last year, the only state to have done so.
“The federal legislation should be a floor, not a ceiling, for chemical security, thereby allowing states to enact stronger chemical security protections as they see fit,” OMB Watch said.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff disagreed with those who have said nothing will be accomplished in an election year.
“I refuse to simply abdicate the field this year and say, well, we’re going to have to wait until after the election to get serious again,” he said in a speech to the American Chemistry Council.