Efforts by the federal government to provide a level of border security and safety that adequately corresponds to terrorist threats from abroad while facilitating legitimate cross-border travel and commerce and protecting civil liberties.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, raised serious questions about the security of the nation’s borders from terrorist attack. Several of the hijackers who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that day were on lists of suspected terrorists. Government officials and the public alike wanted to know how they were able to obtain U.S. visas and entry into the United States despite being on terrorist watch lists. The attacks led to the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tasked with coordinating government efforts to protect the nation from attack. In March 2002, the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security (BTS), a division of DHS, assumed responsibility for securing the nation’s borders and transportation systems.
The BTS oversees more than 350 official ports of entry that connect the United States to the rest of the world. It also assumes responsibility for enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. Divisions of the BTS include the United States Customs Service, the enforcement division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and the Transportation Security Administration. BTS has oversight of all government infrastructure and relies on the Federal Protective Service to protect government buildings.
In addition to providing security to the nation’s borders and ports of entry, the BTS is responsible for defending the U.S. transportation system. The recently created Transportation Security Administration, now part of the BTS directorate, has responsibility for security at the nation’s airports. The BTS uses a wide array of methods to fulfill its duties including intelligence gathering, enforcement of regulations, and inspection, screening, and education of carriers, passengers, and shippers.
The Department of Transportation is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s transportation infrastructure is robust and efficient, and that it keeps pace with modern technology and the nation’s demographic and economic growth. This mandate is threatened by the specter of terrorism and the vulnerability of the national transport system. The United States has a 7,500-mile land and air border with Canada and Mexico. More than 500 million people, including 330 million noncitizens, are admitted into the United States every year. Each year, 11.2 million trucks and 2.2 million rail cars cross into the United States and 7,500 foreign-flag ships make 51,000 calls to U.S. ports.
The principles of free and open trade, which have been responsible for the extraordinary prosperity and economic growth of the United States, are also at the heart of the transport system’s vulnerability. Maritime trade is perhaps the most exposed link in the system. The maritime trade transport system is a major source of concern among world governments and global corporations. Particularly serious is the matter of container transport. The uniformity, speed, and anonymity of containerized traffic offer terrorists ample opportunity to inflict catastrophic damage to the commercial infrastructure of the United States. The system has already been the target of pirates and criminal organizations, which regularly traffic in contraband materials, weapons, illegal drugs, and bulk quantities of dangerous material. Terrorists have the ability to exploit weak maritime security to move material, funds, and human beings around the globe using legitimate commercial operations as fronts for their activity.
In addition to being open and free flowing, the global transport system is highly interdependent. The U.S. government estimates that a disruption in world trade because of an attack on several major seaports could cost the United States economy nearly $60 billion. The ripple effect of such an attack would have a devastating impact on world commerce and perhaps trigger a global recession. Messages to and from al-Qaeda operatives around the world following the World Trade Center attacks revealed that the attacks were intended to inflict economic damage more than civilian loss of life. In Al Ansar, the main journal of al-Qaeda’s thought, an author wrote:
[W]e find that God has graciously enabled the mujahedin to understand the [American] enemy’s essence and nature, and indeed his center of gravity. . . . [I]t is clearly apparent that the American center of gravity is the American economy. Supporting this penetrating strategic view is that the Disunited States of America are a mixture of nationalities ethnic groups and races united only by the “American Dream,” or, to put it more correctly, worship of the dollar, which they openly call the “Almighty Dollar.” Furthermore, the entire American war effort is based upon pumping enormous wealth at all times, money being as has been said, the sinew of war. . . . Aborting the American economy is not an unattainable dream.
To counter these threats, the U.S. government has established several new agencies and programs. Examples of these efforts include the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which maintains a database known as TIPOFF. The database, compiled by State Department analysts, contains files on persons who may be considered terrorists. Such information may prove useful to consular and immigration officers when making decisions regarding visa issuance and admissions.
The Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) of the Immigration and Naturalization Service is a database maintained by the INS and the U.S. Customs Service that provides information to the federal inspection services. Through its National Automated Immigration Lookout System II (NAILS II), the INS and various other agencies supply information to IBIS. These agencies include the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the International Crime Police Organization (INTERPOL), and the Department of Agriculture. Nearly 30 different agencies and 3,000 government employees have access to the system.
The Treasury Enforcement and Communications System (TECS II) serves as the centralized database for IBIS. Through TECS II, IBIS interfaces with many databases maintained by other state, federal, and international law enforcement agencies. IBIS contains approximately 5 million names and birth dates of individuals who may be inadmissible into the United States.
Despite these efforts, critics insist national security programs remain scattered and uncoordinated. Furthermore, in an increasingly interconnected world, meeting the challenges of national security may mean reassessing our position in the world and our relationship with other nations.
Asa Hutchinson, former top official in the Department of Homeland Security, resigned his post in 2005 after twice being passed over for promotion to director of the department. In January 2003, the U.S. Congress approved the nomination of former Arkansas Congressman Asa Hutchinson as undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security. In this position, Hutchinson headed an office with more than 110,000 employees and was responsible for protecting the nation’s borders, transportation, and immigration systems.
As a congressman, Hutchinson served on both the House Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Judiciary Committee. In 2000, he was appointed as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), where he advocated both tough law enforcement policies and increased investment in drug treatment and education programs.
In announcing his resignation, Hutchinson expressed disappointment at failing to win the top post at the department and suggested that he may have future political ambitions.
Border Policy; Homeland Security, Department of; Immigration and National Security; Transportation Security Administration
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