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Broken Borders 

The price of security

Over the last two months, three national security chieftains warned that the next big terrorist attack is coming soon, possibly in the next few months and most certainly within the next three years. At the end of an interview early this summer that didn't get much news coverage, FBI Director Robert Mueller made a stunning series of statements, actually apologizing in advance for the coming attacks and blaming a lack of funding for failed interdiction efforts. Then National Intelligence Director J. Michael McConnell said a large attack was coming, as did Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. All three men spoke of this potential coming attack in terms of fear that kept them up at night.

Meanwhile, the most frightening national intelligence estimate since Sept. 11 was released in July.

The estimate, a consensus of the data gathered by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, said al-Qaida terrorists had rebuilt much of their capabilities and were planning mass-casualty attacks inside America. Al-Qaida was working to smuggle operatives from Iraq and Afghanistan who had been trained in the tribal regions of Pakistan into the United States and may have already succeeded, the report said, though homeland security bosses have since denied that they have infiltrated the country. This has been followed ever since by reports in Israel, Canada, Europe and the United States of heightened terrorist chatter similar to that seen before the 9/11 attacks.

In the aftermath of the release of the intelligence estimate, the Bush administration went into spin mode. FBI agents were pulled off other cases and frantically dispatched to track down over 700 leads on the FBI's terrorism "worry list," ABCNews.com reported.

Front and center was Gen. Gene Renuart, head of the U.S. Northern Command, who assured the public that extra steps were being taken in the wake of the report to strengthen security at our ports and along our coast. Chertoff too talked ports and airport security for weeks.

The administration also trotted out various national security higher-ups to assure the American people that it was diligently working to prevent al-Qaida from infiltrating the United States -- by concentrating on immigration loop holes in Europe and Canada that might allow terrorists to enter our country via those countries.

Missing from it all was any mention by the administration of efforts of any kind to secure our greatest national security threat -- our wide open southern border. It is the border that has been used by 45,008 "special interest" illegal aliens -- those from countries on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terror or terrorist-harboring nations -- since 2001 to enter this country. And those are just the ones we caught.

It wasn't until the end of August that McConnell admitted, during a grilling by the San Antonio Express-News editorial board, that terrorists are trying to exploit both of our borders -- and that there had been a dramatic rise recently in special-interest aliens apprehended at the border.

Also in August, intelligence reports leaked to the media indicated that coyotes who once smuggled low-wage workers were getting $10,000 for helping middle easterners cross our southern border. So did a Drug Enforcement Administration report that warned that terrorist organizations were teaming up with established Mexican drug cartels to build sophisticated drug-trafficking networks that spanned Mexico and that U.S. illegal aliens of Middle Eastern origin had adopted Hispanic language and culture to blend into these communities in the United States, making them tougher to distinguish.

All this makes what's been going on along our borders this summer pretty hard to fathom. Two weeks ago, Chertoff made a big deal out of the administration's new "get tough" plan to heavily screen private planes in the name of tighter homeland security. For the first time, private pilots flying non-commercial planes would have to provide names, birth dates and other vital information on passengers an hour before taking off for a flight to the United States so they could be checked against terrorist watch lists.

Within a week of the plane screening announcement, another memo Chertoff didn't publicize went out to agents of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, an agency that also falls under Chertoff's umbrella. It instructed border patrol agents to stop doing passenger ID checks and cargo checks on trucks and cars when traffic backs up and the wait to cross the border from Mexico grows to over 45 minutes. Why? The wait times were hurting business.

Meanwhile, in August, 1,000 if the nation's 5,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement criminal investigators were reassigned exclusively to customs investigations. That's a 20 percent reduction in the manpower focused on detaining and removing potentially dangerous criminal and terrorist aliens. The timing, again, is mind-blowing.

A close look at what this administration does, rather than what it says, reveals the truth.

The Bush people have looked the terrorist threat in the eye and made a very deliberate calculation. They have clearly decided they are willing to pay the price of thousands to tens of thousands of lives to leave our borders open and keep the American business lobby, namely the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, happy.

As long as that remains the case, everything else they do and say regarding homeland security is just bad political theater.

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