Protecting the Nation -- One Sniff at a Time


Oct. 12, 2005 — -- When New York went on high alert last week for a possible terrorist attack on the city's subway system, police officers beefed up patrols, bag searches were increased and -- perhaps most importantly -- the best noses in the business were on the job.

"For explosive-type detection, canines are the absolute best," said Mark Miller, president of Executive Protection Systems, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army chemical corps and has worked with the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court on disaster and terrorism preparedness and security.

Dogs in the Canine Enforcement Program of U.S. Customs and Border Protection already guard the nation's airports, 73 different seaports and 69 Border Patrol stations -- the largest number of such teams of any federal law enforcement agency. A separate program will boost their ranks even further, as teams begin training this month for deployment in 10 mass transit and commuter rail systems, an expansion of the Transportation Security Administration's National Explosive Detection Canine Team Program. Customs and Border Protection dogs and TSA dogs complement police dogs and those used by local jurisdictions.

The dogs are trained to catch chemicals, explosives, huge stashes of currency, agriculture products, narcotics and even concealed humans at the borders.

Most dogs in the program are from the sports breeds, including retrievers, shepherds and mixed breeds. There's also the Beagle Brigade, a group of smaller dogs that interact with the public in the nation's airports. Passive-response dogs sit when they detect an odor so they work around people. Dogs trained to find narcotics will bite and scratch containers when they catch a whiff of illegal substances.

"The philosophy is one dog, one type of odor, one type of response," said Herbert H. Herter, branch chief for canine enforcement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, based at Newark Liberty International Airport. "A narcotic dog will only be a narcotic dog."

From October 2004 through mid-September, canines at Newark Airport discovered 240 pounds of hash, 345 pounds of cocaine, 8 pounds of heroin, $3,604,185 in undeclared cash, 873 plants and 432 pounds of meat, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection records.

"Our primary mission is anti-terror," Herter said. "But our mission still is to identify and detect narcotics coming into the country also."

That mission extends to other substances as well. Take Lexi, a beagle-foxhound mix who patrols the international baggage claim area of Newark Liberty International Airport as an agriculture detector dog. Following a recent flight from Milan, Italy, she sniffed forbidden figs and apples stuffed in a suitcase -- all in just a few seconds while strolling around the baggage carousel and being admired by passengers and airport staff.

And then there's Mr. Pickles, a pit bull trained to detect narcotics. He works behind the scenes, dashing across luggage as it moves along a conveyor belt from incoming flights. When he detects the scent of synthetic cocaine used in his training, Mr. Pickles scratches and gnaws at the suitcase where it's hiding.

Dogs also work at the Port of Newark, checking cargo containers that come into the country. They can detect odors buried deep underneath other things and mixed among other scents. "The dog can smell into something provided it's porous," Herter said.

Securing one of the largest container ports in the United States is no small task, and dogs complement the high-tech devices that monitor incoming containers, as well as regulations requiring documentation of what's inside.

The United States requires every container being shipped here to have paperwork provided to Customs and Border Protection 24 hours before it's loaded onto a ship in another port. The same rule applies to passenger lists on airplanes from other countries.

"We tell them if they don't have this paperwork in that we won't let them unlade it," said Customs and Border Protection spokesman William Anthony. "That is a powerful economic incentive for them to make sure that the paperwork is in."

Computers at an undisclosed location match the data with what the importer says should be in the container. "If what's supposed to be in it is Louis Vuitton handbags and the net weight is enough to have four tanks in it, you get a discrepancy," he said.

To ease this process, Customs and Border Protection personnel work with local customs officials in most major ports around the world to regulate cargo. In addition, 7,000 importers, exporters and corporations have joined the Customs and Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, policing their own supply chains while Customs and Border Protection "looks over their shoulder."

"No company wants to be the company that has a weapon of mass destruction shipped in its container," Anthony said. "It's not good PR. It's not good for business."

Once the cargo arrives in the United States, technology helps determine if it is fit to enter the country. Computers calculate whether there is a risk factor, Anthony said, and if there is the container is X-rayed upon arrival. Six percent of the total amount cargo amount -- about 9 million containers -- are examined by X-ray or gamma ray or torn apart by hand, he said.

When a container is opened, an isotope identifier is brought in to determine what type of radiation it is emitting, and the dogs also check.

But what if all these measures still miss a nuclear device or other weapon of mass destruction? Anthony said 80 percent of all vehicles and cargo and every truck leaving the ports are looked at by radiation portal monitors -- large telephone booth-like structures that do a final scan.

"Of course, we're hoping that we get it before it got to the United States," he said, "but it's worse to have it in middle of hugely populated area than leaving the seaport."

Even with all of the security measures in place, officials acknowledge that the system is far from perfect.

"There's not one single thing that will prevent a terrorist or terrorist weapon from getting into the country," Anthony said. "The technology's not there."

Miller, the terrorism expert, agreed. "We don't have the technology in the field to contain [a WMD]," he said. X-rays, he noted, can tell something is there, but not what it is. "It could be in carry-on luggage and nobody would know if it's in a non-metal container."

While he said dogs are the "gold standard" when it comes to explosives detection, they can be used to detect chemical agents -- once. "As a chemical or biological detector, I don't think that the canine would work. I don't think it would be safe because they'd get a good snootful of it and it would kill them."

He said some technologies are advanced enough to safely determine what is inside a container, but they are not commercially available yet. "What they need to be able to do is take a snapshot or take a look inside of a container to tell what it is without having to look it up," he said.

Miller said access to the country remains a large security threat, and he thinks there should be more border patrols and even a fence along the country's southern border.

"The biggest threat right now is our open borders with Mexico," Miller said. "That's a huge problem. We can protect our seaports, and we can protect our ports, but as long as we have an open border with Mexico, the bad guys can still get to us."

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