Skip to comments.Hit-or-miss security leaves border exposed
Posted on 04/21/2002 10:04:06 PM PDT by NWO Slave
ROBERT KIRKHAM/Buffalo News
The U.S. Customs Service says it has seized more drugs, cash and weapons at Buffalo Niagara bridges since Sept. 11.
JAMES P. McCOY/Buffalo News
"The northern border is still as porous as Swiss cheese." William Dietzel, retired supervisor of customs inspections in Buffalo
ROBERT KIRKHAM/Buffalo News
Customs has greatly increased its use of the electronic Vehicle & Cargo Inspection System to electronically scan truck cargoes.
But agents from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, who alternate border inspections with the Customs Service, look through the trunks of one in every three vehicles.
It's a random approach - the green uniforms of the INS or the blue outfits of the Customs Service - depending on which line motorists get in at the bridges.
Local and national critics say no.
"The northern border is still as porous as Swiss cheese," said William Dietzel, a retired supervisor of customs inspections in Buffalo. "If people knew the actual number of cars, trucks and train cars that are opened up and searched thoroughly for weapons and terrorists, it would scare them."
Similar criticism comes from Ezan Bagdasarian, a former customs supervisor in Buffalo who received awards and commendations before he retired in late 2000 and filed an age discrimination lawsuit. Several officials who still work for the Customs Service also share this opinion.
Critics say the local customs work force suffers from morale problems and understaffing. They say federal officials have ignored security concerns about the nation's northern border for decades.
"Even after 9/11, the pressure on us to keep traffic moving is much stronger than the pressure to look for terrorists," added one veteran customs official. "At first, we were checking the trunk of every car. Then we backed off. We still aren't doing inspections the way they should be done."
Every day, an average of 23,400 cars, trucks, buses and trains roll into the United States over bridges in Buffalo and Niagara County - more than 8.5 million last year, each a potential carrier of bombs, weapons or terrorists.
U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, since Sept. 11, has called the northern border a "soft spot" for terrorism.
The INS shares inspection duties with the Customs Service at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, the Rainbow and Whirlpool bridges in Niagara Falls and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Lewiston.
It is often an uneasy partnership, according to many people who work in the two agencies. Customs and INS inspectors work in alternate booths, but often use vastly different criteria in deciding which automobiles should be closely inspected as they enter the United States.
In recent months, INS inspectors have done much closer inspections of cars entering at the local bridges. This was verified by sources in both agencies.
INS inspectors are currently under strict orders to ask for identification from every car passenger at least 14 years old and to search the trunk of at least every third car.
By comparison, customs inspectors seldom look into car trunks, rarely ask for ID and usually conduct a quick, cursory interview of passengers before waving cars through.
"It does cause hard feelings," said one INS official. "We're supposed to be on the same team, doing the same job. I'm sometimes wondering, while our people are closely inspecting the cars, is the customs guy at the next booth waving through a terrorist?"
Closer examinations of vehicles crossing the international bridges in Buffalo and Niagara County have also resulted in high numbers of drug, cash and weapons seizures over the past seven months, according to Joseph J. Wilson, Buffalo port director for the Customs Service.
"Since Sept. 11, our top priority has been the prevention of terrorism," Wilson said in an interview last week. "We have very good training programs and very good employees who take this responsibility very seriously. . . . The threat of al-Qaida is not over, believe me."
None of the 100-plus people who were arrested or detained has been shown to have any connection to the Sept. 11 attacks or the terrorist network al-Qaida. But Wilson cited the figure as evidence that his agency is pulling out all stops in its local search for terrorists.
But such a wide disparity in inspection practices can open security loopholes for terrorists, drug smugglers and other criminals, said John Carman, a former customs inspector from San Diego. Carman runs a http://www.CustomsCorruption.com/ dedicated to exposing what he considers widespread corruption in the Customs Service.
"There are smugglers who know what uniforms the customs and INS guys wear, and they'll head for the inspection booths where they know they will get less scrutiny," Carman said. "It's a dangerous situation."
Wilson and other customs supervisors in Buffalo dismiss this kind of criticism as sour grapes from disgruntled ex-employees. They do not deny that their inspectors use different criteria than the INS, but they deny that the INS does a better job.
"You can talk about percentages, you can talk about what criteria are used by different agencies, but there's no one "cookie cutter' approach that works on bridge inspections," Wilson said. "Our inspectors are trained to look for certain nuances, certain anomalies. Every single vehicle that comes through is an individual case."
As an example, Wilson cited the December 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who had numerous bomb-making materials in his car when arrested by customs agents in Port Angeles, Wash. Ressam was convicted of terrorism charges last year. "That was a case where customs inspectors popped his trunk and searched it because they noticed his body language and the way he reacted when they asked him questions. These people know what to look for," Wilson said.
Locally, and on a much smaller scale, he said customs inspectors recently found a load of high-potency hydroponic marijuana on a flatbed truck entering the United States over the Peace Bridge.
"It was simply a case of an inspector noticing that some wood didn't look like it was stacked properly," Wilson said. "The marijuana was under there."
Chief Inspectors Steven Loffredo and Mark MacVittie said seizures of unreported cash - more than $1.6 million - have been much higher than usual in this region since Sept. 11. Drug and weapons seizures also have increased.
Customs has greatly increased its use of a device called the Vehicle & Cargo Inspection System to electronically scan truck cargoes. The device uses gamma rays and works somewhat like a CAT scan machine is used in medical examinations.
Wilson said he has been impressed with the cooperation shown by motorists at bridge crossings that have sometimes been unusually long.
"In the past, people would call my office to complain, "Hey, your guys searched my trunk,' " Wilson said. "Now the complaint I hear is, "Hey, I just came over the Peace Bridge and nobody searched my trunk.' "
INS District Director M. Frances Holmes said her inspectors and customs have a good relationship, but she confirmed that they do their bridge inspections differently.
"Obviously we're different agencies. I can't comment on what their agency does," Holmes said. "I think we're both doing a good job. There's more scrutiny than ever at this border since Sept. 11."
Customs has more than 285 inspectors, criminal investigators and other personnel working in the Buffalo Niagara region. The agency's employees in this region make more than $25.4 million a year in salaries, overtime and benefits.
Customs' critics say many of the people who do inspections, investigations and other work in Western New York are upset over nepotism, age discrimination and a mean-spirited management style that has caused some of customs' better people to retire or leave the area.
In recent years, disputes have erupted between some supervisors and agents in the Customs Service's criminal division. One Buffalo agent, James LeGasse, faces criminal charges that he assaulted his boss while both were on duty in January. LeGasse denies the assault charge and claims he was goaded into a confrontation by a superior, an attorney for LeGasse says.
Another agent, Robert Lamoureux, has filed a discrimination complaint, claiming his career was ruined when a supervisor who disliked him falsely reported him to Amherst police as a suspect in a series of brutal bike path rapes. Police sources confirmed that Lamoureux was checked out in those cases and could not possibly be the rapist.
Another agent, Jeremiah Sullivan, who supervised customs investigations into terrorism and other crimes for six years, recently was removed from his job, demoted and moved from Buffalo to St. Louis. No public explanation was given.
Sullivan declined to comment, but sources said he has hired an attorney and filed a complaint against the Customs Service.
"It's a very difficult work environment, and people don't do their best work when they're disillusioned," said Bagdasarian, the retired customs agent. "If you don't kiss the boss' ring, they'll ruin you. They'll suddenly tell a 30-year inspector from Buffalo that he's needed in Newark, N.J. At a time when we need them more than ever, because of the threat of terrorism, many customs people are totally disgusted," said Bagdasarian.
Wilson and James Mitchie, a customs spokesman from Washington, said they could not comment on individual personnel matters. But both denied that nepotism, age discrimination or mistreatment of workers is a problem in Western New York.
"In every organization, you're going to have people who complain," Wilson said.
"Most inspectors and employees have taken up the cause of what we're trying to do."
Carman, the former inspector who runs the "Corruption on the Border" Web site, disagreed. He said there have been numerous examples in recent years of inspectors becoming so disgruntled that they begin taking bribes and committing other crimes.
"Americans should feel very uncomfortable, knowing that customs is on the front lines of protecting them against terrorism," Carman said. "This is an agency filled with disgruntled and disillusioned workers. When you don't believe in the agency you work for, that leads to all kinds of problems."
Worker fatigue is one problem that customs officials acknowledge. Some customs inspectors have complained about working unusually long hours since September, often working several 16-hour shifts in one week.
"It's difficult for an inspector to do his or her best job looking for terrorists when they're half-asleep," one bridge official said. "You're not at your best, your sharpest or your most aggressive when you're doing a 16-hour shift."
Wilson said he agrees, and is thankful that the federal government is sending another 45 customs inspectors to work in this region. Holmes said she expects to hire about 25 additional INS inspectors in the next few months.
The U.S. Border Patrol, a division of INS whose local agents patrol more than 400 miles of the border with Canada, from Watertown to Erie, Pa., expects to roughly double its local contingent, with 40 new agents. The Border Patrol recently got a helicopter for local use.
New York National Guard members also have been assisting at the bridges, which helps to free up customs inspectors to do other work, including visual inspections of cars leaving the United States for Canada, Wilson said.
"The one and only good outcome of 9/11 is that our government is finally taking a close look at the U.S.-Canada border," one customs official said.
Though the government says there is no proof that any of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the United States through Canada, there is a growing recognition that security needs to be upgraded at the northern border. Federal officials admit that the 4,000-mile border between the United States and Canada has traditionally received much less attention than the southern border with Mexico.
Americans could become the victims of lax enforcement of immigration laws in Canada, said Richard Dickins, a retired assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Authorities believe there are terrorist cells in Toronto and other Canadian cities, Dickins said.
"It's much easier for a terrorist to get into Canada than into the United States, because our basic immigration policy is to welcome people. We want to increase our population," said Dickins. "Then you have to worry about these people going into the U.S."
Former U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell, who spent 17 years as a federal prosecutor in Buffalo, believes there needs to be much better coordination and more sharing of information among the Customs Service, the INS and Canadian border authorities.
"I don't really see the rationale for keeping customs, Border Patrol and INS as separate agencies. Over the years, I saw duplication of efforts and sometimes a lack of coordination," O'Donnell said.
"There has always been tension between law enforcement and commerce - keeping the traffic moving. I still don't think our government recognizes the threats we face on the northern border."
Bttt. Our government doesn't recognize the threats we face on the southern border either. Homeland security is a joke, and like all gov agencies, it will be an expensive joke.
What they're telling smugglers is that 66% of their shipments will get through? A loss of up to 33% is, probably, acceptable.
We can check 33% of the cars for $25 million dollars in salaries. Pay the other $50 million, already. Thousands of lives are at stake.
Approximately 75% all the drugs, are smuggled across the border in uncontrolled areas, not the Ports of Entry.
Ports of Entry are the places the alien smugglers use, not the drug smugglers.
The reason the Customs service only checks certain vehicle is because they profile, and it works.
These statistics always amaze me. They know that only 25% of the drugs come through the border checkpoints and they know that their profiling techniques work without checking 100% of the cars. How exactly do they figure that? How can they be sure a large quantity of drugs, diamonds, cash, weapons, explosives, etc. didn't get through, because the smugglers and terrorists are wise to the profiling criteria and have the inspectors out-slicked?
You make it sound so simple. The biggest tip-off is usually the behavior of the vehicle operator. People doing things they are not supposed to usually act in ways very identifiable to those trained (usually by experience) to spot them. And, while some can control their behavior well enough to avoid raising these red behavior flags (just as there are those that can beat a poly-graph), most cannot, even when they know what the flags are. Stress makes people say and do stupid things even when the brain is telling them not to. Knowing the clues you spoke of sometimes makes them even more nervous and liable to trip themselves up.
Nothing works better than good old fashion experience and profiling.
And these same folks would be the first one to run off to their Congressman and complain that their rights were violated if the Military stopped them, questioned them or detained them.
LOL! I've been re-reading the history of the Mongols. Neither helped the Chinese. Although I am always in favor of the military solution, even if its not totally effective without free-fire zones.
I hope you're wrong. If this is the best we can do, our country's screwed.
I'd take a wall and the miltary to this any day of the week. Search me and my car on the way out and back in. I get searched at the airport, court buildings, other government buildings, military bases, etc.. Why would you think anyone, but a bleeding heart liberal or a law-breaker would mind? We go through it, everyday, now.
IT BEATS THE HELL OUT OF BEING BLOWN UP!
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