Key senators said a Mexican national infected with a highly contagious form of tuberculosis did not use a fake name to enter the country 76 times and take numerous flights, as Homeland Security spokesmen had previously stated.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and the panel’s ranking member, said that Customs and Border Protection officials had the name and a corrected date of birth by mid-April but that the man continued to cross the border unfettered 21 more times.
“He wasn’t using an alias,” Miss Collins said.
“The first report that we got from the [Homeland Security] department was that that was the reason. That turned out not to be the case,” Miss Collins said.
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Mr. Lieberman and Miss Collins questioned Paul Rosenzweig, Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary for policy, about the conflicting excuses and the potential health threat caused by the lapse during a hearing this week.
“We are not satisfied, and we don’t want this to happen again,” said Mr. Lieberman, who along with Miss Collins is drafting a follow-up letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt demanding more answers on how the health-security lapse occurred.
The Washington Times last week reported that Amado Isidro Armendariz Amaya made the border crossings from August 2006 to June 2007. Homeland Security (DHS) officials had said the Mexican businessman was traveling under an alias.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was warned by Mexican health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 16 that the frequent traveler was infected with multi-drug resistant (MDR) tuberculosis.
But according to internal DHS e-mails obtained by The Times, Mr. Armendariz did not use a fake name but rather used variations of his own name. For example, he customarily went by his middle name “Isidro,” rather than his formal birth name, “Amado.”
The e-mails show nine variations of his name in a system that is capable of searching two dozen law-enforcement databases.
In this week’s hearing, the Senate committee learned that Customs and Border Protection officials had the name of “Isidro Armendariz Amaya” and the correct birth date in April.
Homeland Security officials, however, took more than six weeks to issue a May 31 alert to warn its own border inspectors, according to Homeland Security sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
MDR tuberculosis is a highly contagious and dangerous illness — the same strain that concerned health officials when Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer, slipped into the U.S. from Europe via a flight to Canada. The story set off alarms that the system had failed to identify the contagious passenger, which led to congressional hearings in June.
The Mexican national’s border crossing card was canceled on June 1. However, Border Patrol officials declined to report the health security breach when it briefed the Senate committee on Mr. Speaker’s case on June 4. The CDC also failed to report the Mexico breach when it briefed the committee on June 6.
The Mexican national was not placed on the no-fly list until the Transportation Security Agency was warned on June 7.
“I’m really concerned about this,” Miss Collins said. “This person was potentially very dangerous from a public health perspective. What if this had been a terrorist?”
Customs officials told lawmakers at this week’s hearing that they were hampered initially by their incomplete information on the traveler — a transposed date of birth and his middle name and his two surnames, maternal and paternal, the common practice among Spanish-speakers.
“The case of the Mexican gentleman with tuberculosis … is an example of that, where we can only work with as much information as we have,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.
“If the information is incomplete or inaccurate, that defeats, to some degree, our ability to conduct watch-list name matching,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.
The response did not satisfy the committee, which has opened an inquiry into the security lapse on the Mexican border.
“If a terrorist about whom we have an accurate last name and an accurate middle name and an accurate date of birth could cross 21 times, when you know it’s likely where the individual is going to be crossing, that’s a huge concern to me,” Miss Collins said.
Using only three of the four names would create tens of thousands of “false-positive” hits creating a logjam at the border crossings, Mr. Rosenzweig said.
“You know, we’ve had many, many complaints that the lines on the southern border are already too long. As the type of information we get is less and less accurate, and we widen the field to make an examination based upon the name check, we get more and more people who will be overwhelming our secondary inspection capabilities, extending the line beyond belief and inconveniencing lots and lots of people who aren’t matches for any of those,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.
Again, the lawmakers were not satisfied with the response.
“I think the public interest would have been better served if you had stopped everybody with his two last names,” Mr. Lieberman said.
Added Miss Collins: “I have no confidence that these agencies have procedures in place to adequately address the next health threat, particularly one that would put the American public in even more danger.”