- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

A senior House Republican yesterday asked Homeland Security for “some straight answers” on whether it had closed down seven tunnels used by smugglers to bring illegal aliens and drugs into the U.S. from Mexico.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have told conflicting stories on whether the tunnels had been filled to prevent the smuggling of aliens and drugs.

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the seven-term congressman noted a Jan. 30 story in the Los Angeles Times saying seven tunnels needed to be filled, that two had been “capped,” meaning their entrance was blocked off, and CBP was looking to find $2.7 million to complete the task.

Then, on Feb. 2, Mr. Davis said his House staff was told all seven tunnels had been capped, had round-the-clock surveillance and the $2.7 million had been secured. He said he then learned Senate staffers had been told the $2.7 million was still needed. Later, he said, he discovered there was no date certain for the tunnels to be filled because the U.S. Border Patrol had to negotiate with property owners.

Saying he was “unable to obtain consistent information regarding the tunnels,” he asked Mr. Chertoff to make his staff available for a briefing by Feb. 26.

“In an age in which illegal immigration is at the forefront of debate in our country — in which we have concerns not just over drug and human smuggling, but the ability of terrorists to infiltrate our borders — why is CBP all over the map on this issue?” Mr. Davis asked in the letter.

CBP spokesman Michael Friel confirmed yesterday that two of the seven tunnels were capped after a survey by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but none has been filled. He said the cost estimate to fill the seven was $2.7 million and the agency is attempting to find the money within its current budget.

Mr. Friel said there was no timetable for the work to be completed, but noted that the agency also had to deal with environmental, operational and land-use concerns, as well as ongoing investigative issues involving the tunnels and their use before any work could be started.

U.S. law-enforcement authorities believe the seven tunnels, along with others, represent a national security risk, open to continued use by smugglers seeking to bring illegal aliens and drugs into the United States. They said the tunnels also could be used by terrorists.

At least 47 tunnels are included in CBP’s current “inventory,” Mr. Friel said, the vast majority in California and Arizona. The smaller ones are easily destroyed, but the larger, more elaborate tunnels — many with concrete floors, reinforced walls and electrical lighting — require substantial manpower and cash.

Some smugglers have used the concrete from capped tunnels to reinforce those tunnels and others, authorities said.

In January 2006, federal agents found a 2,400-foot tunnel filled with marijuana that connected warehouses in Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego, the largest tunnel discovered to date. Equipped with a pulley and ventilation system, the tunnel was 6 feet wide and 8 to 12 feet high, with cement floor and lights on its walls.

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