Senators are calling for greater security along the Canada-U.S. border after a U.S. government investigation said it would be easy to smuggle radioactive materials and other contraband across the northern border.
The independent Government Accountability Office told Congress Thursday it sent investigators to test security along the border was able to easily simulate the cross-border movement of radioactive materials and other contraband with no border patrol agents anywhere in sight.
"Our work clearly shows substantial vulnerabilities in the northern border to terrorists or criminals entering the U.S. undetected," Gregory Kutz, the GAO's managing director of special investigations, told members of the Senate Finance Committee.
GAO testimony suggested the U.S. border with Canada is disproportionately short-staffed, drastically underprotected, and disturbingly vulnerable to terrorists.
Senators Alarmed by Border Security
"I am quite alarmed at how easy it is to get across the border," said Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., as he heard testimony from officials from the GAO and the Department of Homeland Security.
However, Ronald Colburn, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, said he was not surprised by the report.
"We agree with the GAO's findings," he said. "The border is not as secure as it should be."
Focusing Resources on U.S.-Mexico Border
Colburn said part of the reason GAO investigators could easily cross an unmanned stretch of the Canada-U.S. border was that his agency's resources are used to protect the most vulnerable areas of the American border -- the Mexico border. Colburn said that is where 99 percent of illegal border activity takes place.
However, GAO investigators were able to easily cross the Mexican border as well, although it was the serious understaffing at the northern border that raised the ire of senators during the hearing.
At one location on the Canadian border, the U.S. Border Patrol was alerted to GAO activities through a citizen's tip, but agents were unable to find the GAO investigators.
The GAO said it found several ports of entry that had posted daytime hours and were simply left unstaffed overnight.
'How to Man 4,000 Miles?'
Colburn said there are approximately 250 U.S. Border Patrol agents on duty at any given time out of a total of approximately 1,000 assigned to the Canadian border. There are 12,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to the Mexican border.
"How are 250 people going to man 4,000 miles? It sounds like you need more people," said Baucus.
"This demonstrates how our borders are so porous," said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who said that a 24-1 ratio of agents patrolling the southern border versus the northern border represented "a disparity of focus."
Salazar questioned how Colburn could claim that the Mexican border was the most vulnerable area. Quoting a 2002 Canadian Security Intelligence Service report that said that, with the possible exception of the United States, which is the principal terrorist target, there are more international terrorist organizations active in Canada than anywhere else in the world.
Lawmakers also cited the case of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian terrorist caught by a quick-thinking U.S. border guard crossing the border at Port Angeles, Wash., with approximately 100 pounds of explosives that were going to be used in a planned millennium terror attack at Los Angeles International Airport.
Senators pressed Colburn on exactly how many agents the U.S. Border Control needs to adequately protect the Canada-U.S. border.
'We Cannot Skimp on Resources'
"You've not been specific," Baucus told Colburn. "You've been avoiding questions. You've not been candid. Your testimony is not satisfactory. I don't get the sense that you really care."
Baucus told Colburn to "dedicate more time and resources to address this problem that's been so exposed today."
Other senators from border states expressed alarm, including Sen.Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
"This is deeply disturbing news. The fact is that the northern border is understaffed and undermanned," Snowe said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded that Colburn tell lawmakers whether he had the necessary resources to patrol the borders effectively, saying no work the committee did could be more important than finding a solution to this issue.
"This is very troubling," Schumer said. "This report highlights a serious problem. ...We cannot skimp on resources. We cannot spend more than $200 billion on the war in Iraq and then skimp on resources here. You can't play offense and not play defense."