Secure the border

Terry Jeffrey

2/9/2005 12:00:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

Start reading President Bush's new budget proposal, and you cannot escape the conclusion that our government is convinced we face a serious threat that terrorists might carry deadly weapons or materials across our border with the intention of committing mass murder.

 To prevent this, the president quite rightly proposes spending money to cover a broad array of contingencies. For example, he is asking Congress for:

 -- $125 million "in new funding for improved radiological and nuclear screening equipment at our borders."

 -- $343 million to spend "in Russia and other regions to secure vulnerable nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials, and to install detection equipment at overseas border crossings and ports to prevent and detect the illicit transfer of nuclear material."

 -- $596 million "to protect the safety of the nation's food system from contamination by terrorists."

 -- $223 million "to boost efforts in the areas of agent detection, early warning, decontamination and medical countermeasures for chemical and biological threats."

 -- $110 million "to continue research on the viability of countermeasures for commercial aircraft against the threat of shoulder-fired missiles known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems."

 -- $44 million "to support the initial deployment in five cities of an early warning system, called Water Sentinel, to detect terrorist attacks on drinking water systems and a laboratory to support water surveillance and emergency response."

 And, oh yes, there is "$37 million for 210 additional Border Patrol agents."

 Something doesn't compute here: If the Bush budget is approved as requested, we will spend far more money next year on new machines aimed at detecting radiation at our border than we will spend on additional Border Patrol agents to intercept the terrorists who might sneak across the border with the purpose of carrying out a radiological attack.

 We will spend more money researching theories for defending passenger jets against portable anti-aircraft missiles than we will on new Border Patrolmen who can stop the terrorists who might use those missiles from ever getting near a U.S. airport. We will even spend more money making sure we can quickly detect poison in the local water supplies of five selected cities than we will on additional Border Patrol agents to help make sure the terrorists cannot get near any of our cities.

 President Bush seems to have had a recent change of heart on the need for significantly increasing the size of the Border Patrol.

 In December, he signed a law responding to the recommendations of the 9-11 commission that authorized doubling the Border Patrol from about 10,000 agents to 20,000 by adding 2,000 new agents each year for five years. The law also authorized tripling the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents (who enforce immigration laws in the interior of the country) from 2,000 to 6,000 by adding 800 new agents each year for five years. And, finally, it authorized tripling from 20,000 to 60,000 the number of beds for detaining illegal aliens by adding 8,000 per year for five years.

 On Dec. 6, the president sent a letter to the congressional conferees who negotiated this law, specifically lauding its Border Patrol and detention bed provisions. "I also believe," wrote Bush, "the conference took an important step in strengthening our immigration laws by, among other items, increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and detention beds."

 The president's budget, however, would short-change the Border Patrol by 1,790 new agents next year. On Feb. 8, the day after the budget was released, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Spokesman Manny Van Pelt told me that "we haven't yet determined" the number of new ICE agents and new detention beds the budget includes.

 On Jan. 24, the five House conferees on the 9-11 bill -- House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, House Rules Chairman David Dreier and House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra -- sent Bush a letter asking him to seek full funding for the resources the bill authorized. They specifically cited among the "most important" items needing full funding: the doubling of the Border Patrol, the tripling of the ICE agents and the tripling of the detentions beds.

 These senior legislators were right. In a budget that clearly envisions a threat at our border, Bush should have fully funded the authorized increases in border security he himself just signed into law. Congress should fund them anyway -- taking the money from domestic spending proposals that have nothing to do with national security.