Monday, February 28, 2005

CIA Director Porter Goss’ warning that al Qaeda might try to use “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons” in his Feb. 17 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee overshadowed a more urgent intelligence warning. At the same hearing, Vice Admiral James Loy, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, testified that al Qaeda has changed tactics for inserting terrorist teams into the United States.

According to Adm. Loy, al Qaeda plans to use Mexico’s professional people smugglers — known as coyotes — to infiltrate terrorists across our southern border. Adm. Loy’s information is based on recent interrogations and has been confirmed by ongoing counterterrorist operations.

This story ought to have led the news on every network. But Adm. Loy’s Mexican bombshell didn’t generate widespread media coverage because it was buried in written testimony instead of being delivered in telegenic soundbites. Al Qaeda’s departure from its previous modus operandi of using terrorists with valid documents (the majority of September 11 hijackers fit into this category) means the organization intends to attack us using new methods for which we are unprepared.

Adm. Loy attributes al Qaeda’s interest in using Mexico as a springboard to the conclusion by al Qaeda’s leaders that their “operational security” will be enhanced. They are right. Under current conditions, terrorists can easily enter the United States undetected in the stream of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who cross from Mexico annually.

At present, the United States has no defense against this contingency. Washington’s decades-long policy of benign neglect of illegal immigration has spawned a global infrastructure of underworld industries to facilitate the flow of undocumented aliens.

This underground pipeline originates in countries as far away as China, Brazil and Nigeria, where professional smugglers charge thousands of dollars to transport aliens to the United States. Many of these smuggling networks converge in Mexico, where coyotes intimately familiar with the gaps in our security take over the task of transporting aliens beyond the border into our cities. Aliens who prefer can travel to Mexico’s border towns and hire their own coyotes as guides for the final passage. To assist them, the Mexican Foreign Ministry has prepared a handbook for illegal aliens.

Once inside the United States, newly arrived migrants are directed to forgers who create phony documentation, including Social Security cards and birth certificates. These documents satisfy employer requirements and, in most states, are more than sufficient to obtain a driver’s license. Some states will knowingly license undocumented aliens. Illegal aliens can also obtain credit cards from sub-prime lenders. With a driver’s license and a credit card, an alien can open a bank account, lease a safehouse, rent a car, buy weapons, or purchase an airline ticket for use in a suicide mission.

Three-and-a-half years after September 11, we have not begun to address the security issues posed by an internal community of illegal aliens believed to number between 8 and 10 million. Last month, the House of Representatives made a start by passing H.R. 418, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner’s bill to tighten standards for driver’s licenses and improve physical security on the border.

H.R. 418 limits the issuance of licenses to those legally in the country or with pending visa and asylum applications. Licenses cannot remain valid for periods of time that exceed the applicant’s legal stay in the United States. Citizens, residents, and legal aliens will have to submit documentation before being licensed. Visa status will be verified through federal databases, and those who make or issue licenses will have to get security clearances. After a three-year phase-in, identification from states that don’t meet the federal standards will no longer be valid ID for federal transactions. Residents of laggard states won’t be able to board aircraft or pass an instant background check for gun purchases using their driver’s license.

These are reasonable precautions, given Adm. Loy’s warning about al Qaeda’s change of tactics. But they won’t take effect unless the Senate acts, and even then it will be years before the measures are implemented. If Mr. Goss’ warnings about al Qaeda attacks using weapons of mass destruction are right, we can’t afford to lose time getting control over the illegal immigration pipeline into and inside our country and if Mr. Goss believes what he told the Senate Intelligence Committee, perhaps the CIA should take covert action to disrupt alien smuggling networks and corral the coyotes before they deliver the next band of al Qaeda killers to our doorsteps.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security.

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