SPECIAL REPORT: Military technology urged for border and port security

| 4/10/2003

Department of Homeland Security head Tom Ridge said April 9 he favors using UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to strengthen security along U.S. Mexican and Canadian borders, in addition to other technology developed by the military.

"We are taking seriously the use of technology developed by the military for use at our borders," he said. "We expect to announce a demonstration project this year."

Ridge also said he would seek more detailed information from Canadian and Mexican transport businesses to ensure the safe and efficient flow of goods. "If we know something about you, we're more likely to know what's inside your truck," Ridge said.

Ridge testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

"We want to ensure security and the free flow of goods," he said. "This will require an investment in new technology and partnerships with industry. Transportation security is a collaborative effort, we've made advances, but more needs to be done."

Senators agreed that while airport security has improved, more should be done to protect highways, ports, rail and pipelines. Ridge agreed, saying it's "absolutely critical" that the Federal Highway Administration and the states work together to help make the highway system more secure.

He also said the U.S. Coast Guard is behind schedule in developing port vulnerability assessments.

"We want money directed to the Coast Guard to speed up this process."

McCain scores appropriations effort

Committee Chairman John McCain, R-AZ, said, "More should be done to take advantage of the high-tech military capabilities to watch over the border, particularly when it comes to surveillance."

McCain also said better decisions should be made to get money to where it will help most, such as border areas. He noted a recent allocation of $10 million to the South Pole.

"Penguins may have an al-Qaeda cell down there, but I doubt it," he quipped.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Breaux, D-LA, said "we're going to be more vulnerable in the United States because of people who didn't win in Iraq - these people will take terrorist action."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, said, "There are too few resources along the Canadian border. Terrorists will look to the weakest line." He noted there are 500 border controls along the Canadian border, but hundreds more along the Mexican border.

The business connection

Both Ridge and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Acting Administrator Annette Sandberg stress the need to develop technology in conjunction with business to improve transportation security.

To help achieve that goal, The National Journal reports that the Homeland Security Department's "business guy" is Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, a 53-year-old Cuban-American, Bush campaign donor and former Texas banker. 

He is the first head of the Office of Private Sector Liaison at the department. Part of his job is to deliver unwelcome news about new regulations, since most of the country's infrastructure is in private hands and many government agencies have moved to make it more secure.

While he admits that business is inevitably going to face new regulations in the interest of national security, Martinez-Fonts sees his role as "ombudsman" or industry advocate within the department.

"I am the private-sector guy here," he says. "I'm trying to push the flow of goods and people."

The private-sector office was created in last year's homeland-security legislation at the request of industry groups. Business advocates said the office should serve as a single point of contact for discussing new regulations, as well as pushing new security products.

--by Dick Larsen, senior editor

Dick Larsen can be reached at dlarsen@landlinemag.com.