Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Unprotected Border Risks Terrorist Attack

Security experts worry that the porous US-Mexico border is an open invitation to terrorists to try and sneak a nuclear device into the US.
Still, terrorists might consider a 50 percent chance of getting caught too risky if they can cross the border at some other spot that has no detection equipment at all. Harvard's Bunn frets about hikers carrying pieces of a nuclear weapon across the woodland border between Canada and the United States. The Homeland Security Department, in its classified National Planning Scenarios, conjures up a situation in which 'different groups of illegal immigrants' smuggle in materials and parts for a bomb. Or they might drive a fully assembled bomb across the border in a rental truck or a large SUV.

It's actually pretty easy to cross the border undetected, says T.J. Bonner, president of the Border Patrol officers union. There are plenty of small, unmonitored roads, especially along the northern border. 'Drive-throughs are still an easy way to move material that happens to be heavy,' he says. And as for people and vehicles that the Border Patrol does encounter on these roads, he says, 'we just don't screen people to see if they're carrying any nuclear materials with them, nor do we screen vehicles we happen to catch that drive between the ports of entry.' Smugglers have gotten contraband across the border undetected through tunnels, in planes, even hidden inside a tank full of propane. The possibilities are 'only limited by your imagination,' Bonner says.
Equally worrying is the prospect that a nuclear device could be smuggled into Los Angeles on a cargo ship - only a fraction of the hundreds of such vessels entering the ports of Long Beach and LA are thoroughly searched - and transported by terrorists into the heart of the city.
That scenario is what keeps Los Angeles City Council member Jack Weiss up at night. 'If a nuclear weapon were smuggled into Los Angeles via the Port of Los Angeles and transported via the Alameda Corridor into downtown L.A.,' he says, 'I would be shocked if anybody would have any prayer of finding out about that.' Weiss represents one of the wealthiest districts in the city, and his constituents rarely, if ever, talk to him about terrorism. But as a former assistant U.S. attorney and Capitol Hill national security aide, he's mounted a personal quest to raise awareness, and money, for terrorism prevention and preparedness. 'It's inevitable,' he says of a nuclear attack somewhere in the country. 'I don't even view it in terms of risk.'

But Weiss says he's fighting an uphill battle, because local officials are not elected for their anti-terrorism credentials. 'The next attack, if and when it comes, will not galvanize most leaders in most American cities to do more,' he contends. 'The attitude will continue to be, 'It can't and won't happen here.' ' He notes that the Los Angeles Police Department just changed the name of its Counter-Terrorism Bureau to the Critical Incident Management Bureau. 'The chief of police believed that if he kept using the word 'terrorism,' it would be hard to keep getting additional resources from the City Council,' Weiss says with a mix of exasperation and resignation.


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