- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

Homeland Security spends a great deal of money on advanced technology to protect the United States. How effective is it and how effective can it be?

Is it technologically possible to keep terrorists out of the United States? The answer is no, despite computerized no-fly lists and development of biometric passports and iris scanning by tech firms eager for government contracts.

Tens of thousands of foreigners cross the southern border illegally each year with little difficulty. If the array of sensors and aircraft and marshals along the border can’t stop South American peasants from crossing, are they going to stop the smart, well-heeled and determined?

The northern border? Most of it is woods and water. Anyone can backpack across. The American coasts? Thousands of small boats ply their way offshore. Radar can see them, but can’t keep track of who is aboard and who goes overboard in a rubber boat.

The same applies to keeping out explosives, biological agents and even radioactive substances. The border crossings, however well-equipped with sophisticated detectors, remain vulnerable to simple trickery.

For example, ponder the recent AP story: “WASHINGTON — Undercover investigators slipped radioactive material — enough to make two small “dirty bombs” — across U.S. borders in Texas and Washington state in a test last year, the government said yesterday.” The “smugglers” had fake documents. (www.nydailynews.com/news/wn_report/story/403596p-341845c.html)

Note that the federal government spends vast amounts of money to keep drugs out of the United States. This includes computers, infrared scanners, satellite imagery, aircraft with spectral analyzers and monitoring of communications. Yet drugs pour into the country.

The problem is not that the Drug Enforcement Administration is incompetent, but that it is trying to do something that can’t be done. There is too much shoreline, too much border. Technology favors the smugglers. Drug dealers drop a shipment into 100 feet of water and take a Global Positioning System satellite reading of its location, accurate to within a few feet. Divers from a “fishing” boat can find it the next day.

Then there is the recent NBC story reporting tests of airport screening in which governmental agents tried, successfully, to take explosives aboard aircraft.

“In all 21 airports tested, no machine, no swab, no screener anywhere stopped the bomb materials from getting through. Even when investigators deliberately triggered extra screening of bags, no one discovered the materials.” (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11863165/)

Should this surprise anyone? In the first place, you have bored inspectors who stare day after day at tens of thousands of bags on the X-ray monitors. They get careless. Anyone would.

In the second place, technology-based screening doesn’t take into account that the bad guys might be intelligent. Generally, if you know how a detector works, you have a pretty good shot at figuring out how to defeat it.

I’ve spent a career covering the military, the police and the sciences. People in any of these fields immediately come up with ways of circumventing security. I’m not going to give examples because I don’t want to help some amateur yo-yo who listens to his little voices. The point is that serious bad guys can figure out all of this as well as my friends can.

I don’t know why there has been no terrorism to speak of in the United States since September 11, but it certainly isn’t because we have in place an airtight technological barrier in place. We don’t and can’t. To provide the desired level of protection would require a full-blown Soviet-style state with mined fences along the borders and omnipotent police forces with virtually unlimited powers. We won’t, thank goodness, do it.

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