U.S. authorities last week blamed tuberculosis carrier Andrew Speaker's illicit reentry to America on a single point of human error, faulting a Champlain, N.Y., inspector who failed to detain him as instructed by a computer alert.
But the episode underscored much broader gaps in border security that may persist as a result of actions taken by Congress and the Bush administration on passport and immigration policies in recent weeks, former U.S. officials, analysts and government reports say.
In August, a congressional study said investigators who used fake identification documents and posed as American travelers reported breaching U.S. land border inspections 93 percent of the time in 2002 and 2003, succeeding in 42 of 45 tries. In 2006, testers got through on all 18 attempts.
Even more troubling, experts say, roughly half of land crossers on the 4,000-mile-long U.S. frontier with Canada are not asked to present a credential at all, because of the crushing flow of traffic across the world's longest undefended frontier and staffing limitations for U.S. border guards. If the guards do ask for IDs, they routinely have seconds to judge the validity of acceptable documents.
"The first thing we should say is it's damned lucky he [Speaker] got checked at all," said Janice L. Kephart, a former counsel to the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who has testified on the problem to Congress. "When we don't have the basics down -- and we can't even get an inspection right -- it highlights that vulnerabilities especially on the land borders are continuing."
At a time of high anxiety over incursions by terrorists, illegal immigrants and dangerous pathogens, Speaker's case illuminates cracks at the base of the multi-layered defenses that U.S. officials have painstakingly assembled to secure the homeland since the Sept. 11 attacks.
To the public, the costs of those defenses include billions of dollars pledged for fences and Border Patrol officers; delays imposed on travelers mistakenly caught on watch lists; and the diplomatic and civil liberties battles spawned by U.S. demands for information about foreign and domestic travelers. Also controversial are the financial and privacy tolls of stricter national standards for IDs such as driver's licenses and more intrusive computer databases of fingerprints and other ID tools.
Yet the complex and sophisticated system being erected to sort out dangerous "needles" such as terrorists from a haystack of innocent travelers remains vulnerable to fraud and errors by frontline border inspectors, consular officers, immigration officers and motor vehicle department clerks.
"What should have been a textbook success story to demonstrate how our systems worked effectively was overshadowed by the failure to stop this one traveler," W. Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the House on Thursday.
Comparing the episode to a local police officer completing a complex manhunt, C. Stewart Verdery Jr., former DHS assistant secretary for border policy, said: "They did everything right, except the guy forgot to load his weapon and was killed pulling the guy over. He screwed up."
Several current and former U.S. officials predicted that border controls would be more effective when authorities face a terrorism suspect, not a sick person, because data would probably be shared faster and more widely across law enforcement agencies and foreign governments.
‘Not a fair way of looking at this incident’
Those entities would not have gotten bogged down in the time-consuming debates over privacy and legal authorities that delayed efforts by officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to place Speaker's name on no-fly or counterterrorism watch lists, officials said. As Basham told lawmakers: "To compare this particular incident with our ability to deal with the terrorists, I think, perhaps is not a fair way of looking at this incident."
But others say the episode illustrates the existence of border security holes that stem from the demands of commerce and travel.
Each day, U.S. officers at 327 crossings process 1.1 million inbound travelers, 327,500 private vehicles and 85,300 shipments of goods. Traffic at Champlain, one of the busier land crossings on the U.S.-Canada border, has roughly quadrupled since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993, prompting an $80 million expansion to alleviate backups reported as high as five hours.
Travelers routinely spend about 45 seconds at U.S.-Canadian crossings, according to department officials, during which officers have to assess oral claims of citizenship in the United States or Canada. Eight thousand forms of driver's licenses, birth certificates, baptism or hospital records can be presented under existing rules.
On May 24, when Speaker appeared, 2,674 passenger vehicles and commercial trucks passed through. About 40 text alerts requiring secondary inspection were triggered, and the one involving Speaker went unheeded.
The failure of U.S. border inspectors in Speaker's case "highlights how much pressure they're under . . . to let people in, how low a threshold there is. . .and the fallibility of it all," Kephart said.
The Bush administration had proposed several initiatives to reduce that pressure by improving travel documents, reducing illegal immigration, and integrating databases of Americans' main form of identity -- their driver's licenses. But each was dealt a blow last week.
On Friday, the Bush administration temporarily waived a post-Sept. 11 security requirement that U.S. travelers flying to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda present a single, standardized document -- such as a U.S. passport -- that can be automatically checked against government databases.
Surge in passport applications
The rule, which took effect Jan. 1 under a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, prompted a surge in passport applications to the State Department, quadrupling wait lists to 13 weeks. Until Sept. 30, travelers who have requested passports will be allowed to present receipts of applications.
The initiative's expansion to land crossings next year will be even harder, since 300 million out of 400 million people who enter the United States each year do so by land. "WHTI is absolutely one of the most critical features we can have in our border security system for front line officers," said CBP's assistant commissioner, Jayson P. Ahern.
Business groups want changes, warning of economic disruption. Lawmakers have also objected to the costs of applying for new border passes.
Last week's apparent collapse of immigration legislation also set back a bid to expand REAL ID -- a program to set national standards for driver's licenses and link state databases by 2009. Under the Senate plan, presentation of a standard license would be needed for employment by 2013. Fifteen states have passed legislation opposing the program, which is expected to cost states $14.6 billion over 10 years.
Susan Ginsburg, visiting senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute and senior counsel to the Sept. 11 commission on border and terrorist travel policy, said the week's events showed that creation of a "smart border" system is not finished: "It is very much a work in progress . . . and that's a problem."