Our Borders 8 Years Later

By Janice Kephart on September 11, 2009

On 9/11, I was in Old Town Alexandria, Va., celebrating the first morning of my son entering preschool. It wasn't long before I noticed the cars coming south from the Pentagon, the smoke billowing into the air into clear blue skies, and the looks of fear and sadness on the faces of the drivers moving past me.

I turned to someone near by and asked what was going on. They joked and said a plane had gone into the World Trade Center, and then another struck the Pentagon, and were curious I didn't know. I looked at them and said, "Osama Bin Ladin. He finally got what he's been wanting all these years." The person looked at me confused. I moved away, got in my car and started listening to the news, horrified like everyone else.

Then I remembered my days at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology and Terrorism in the late 1990s, where among five of us we covered all varieties of terrorism. One did cyberterror, another chem/bio, another the intelligence community, etc. My responsibility was "traditional" terrorism -- the truck bombs that hit our facilities in Saudi Arabia, Africa, and of course the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I looked out how terrorists got into our country, and asked whether we were under threat from within. We held big hearings and did reports. Folks weren't that interested.

But that was then.

And this was now: what all my colleagues and I in that small subcommittee had feared had come to pass.

Then the 9/11 Commission was created. With my niche of pre-9/11 knowledge, I earned the privilege of serving my country in a way I had never dreamed: as a border counsel to the 9/11 Commission. I had great colleagues then, and we debunked stories that the hijackers had entered the country "cleanly" and that there was nothing the United States could have done to stop them. We also proved -- to ourselves first -- that the 9/11 hijackers, and other terrorists before them, had travel operations in place that included masking identity with fraud and abusing loopholes in our border system. And there were an awful lot of those loopholes.

After the 9/11 Commission Final Report and our Terrorist Travel monograph were published in July and August 2004, and the 9/11 National Intelligence Reform Act was passed in December 2004, it became clear that the lessons of 9/11 on the border could not go fallow. The responsibility to enable change to make us safer as a nation and as individuals lived far beyond our publication date. Things started to get done, slowly with education that turned to policy that became laws requiring the federal government, after decades of failure, to make our borders and our interior more secure.

So where are we know? Are we safer than we were on 9/11 in terms of our borders? Yes, we are. At least for now. We use biometrics to screen people at our borders and require all persons coming into our country now to present a passport. We are improving infrastructure on the border too. We have registered-traveler systems that work. We now require foreign visitors from countries that do not require a visa to fill out basic travel forms before they even get to their foreign airport for departure to the U.S. that are vetted against criminal and terror watchlists, replacing the old system which couldn't tell whether a terrorist was on board until in flight or, worse yet, at our border. We have fencing on the southwest border that is saving the environment from illegal trashing and protecting communities better from crime and drug trafficking, even if much much more needs to be done. We have E-Verify, that easily enables employers to determine work authorization of new hires and nearly all states have improved security in the issuance of driver's licenses. We have a program that enables local law enforcement to garner immigration status of criminals called 287(g). We are trying to assure that our ports have more secure workers and incoming cargo.

Granted, not one of these programs or policies is perfect. Some are better implemented than others, some more controversial than others. Some are under threat of being neutered or repealed with support of the Obama Administration and under guidance from Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano. In fact, for the most part, former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff deserves the credit for the strides made to date to secure our borders. He proved that enforcement of our laws and 9/11 Commission recommendations regarding identity vetting work, which the 9/11 Commission described as "assuring that people are who they say they are."

Whatever anyone may think of the Bush administration's foreign policies, our domestic border policies -- once they were taken seriously -- became a reckoning for terrorists. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, stated soon after his capture that our tightening of the border post-9/11 caused him to rethink seriously who he was sending in for infiltration. For a while, he stopped to rethink. The focus then became on finding recruits with easy access to the United States such as green card holders, American citizens, Canadians, or others. They also realized that feigning legality and but still using real names meant they could be exposed -- by passenger manifest lists and more importantly, immigration records proving entry into the United States. Meetings were held with Columbian FARC to determine the ability of using smugglers along the southwest border for anonymous entry. And I know from my prior work seeking immigration benefits such as religious worker status, changing status to student, or becoming a permanent resident or naturalized citizen were all ways that even those who entered illegally used to stay here. And all this was easy because identity could be easily manipulated, counterfeit or stolen documents easily obtained, and neither law enforcement, immigration, or intelligence officers had streamlined means of communication to figure out problems.

So we must assure identity, insist that our physical borders are respected, we must fight fraud, and we must give our officers what they need to do their job well. We must do so because if we do, we fight terrorism at home and help secure our borders at the same time. We cannot even pretend as a nation that our borders are secure if we do not make these policy choices. Saying our borders are secure will not make it so, as our "Hidden Cameras on the Arizona Border" video makes clear.

9/11 taught us that respecting our country enough to make tough choices about security is the only way to make us secure. We even learned that those choices don't have to mean intrusions to our privacy, nor stances that are unfair. So while we may be safer today than we were on 9/11, we are safer because the 9/11 Commission recommendations, and the tenets they espoused, mattered to our leaders. It is not at all clear that our current leaders value those border recommendations at all. In fact, sometimes it seems they wish they didn't exist.