Airport security: Orlando inspectors say they are undertrained, understaffed


Deborah Davis, right, stands in line at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection at Orlando International Airport on Dec. 16.

HILDA M. PEREZ/Orlando Sentinel
Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 11:18 p.m.
ORLANDO - More than three years after four of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers entered the United States through Orlando International Airport, inspectors there have undergone a massive reorganization and their procedures for detecting terrorists have been updated.
Yet, little has changed.
Front-line inspectors for the new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection say they remain understaffed, especially during peak summer-travel periods; they lack firm standards for denying admission to travelers; and they are undertrained - while still being expected to size up a foreign traveler's statement, body language and paperwork in 60 seconds or less.
What's more, the number of would-be visitors who have been denied entry to the United States by inspectors in Central Florida - one measure of vigilance - has dropped from a high of 540 in 2001 to 259 last year and 200 during the first 10 months of the past fiscal year.
"The system is entirely overwhelmed," said Steven Camarota, director of research for the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, about the performance of the bureau. ''Things have improved, but there's an enormous mismatch between workload and resources. All the pressure is to admit people.''
Camarota and other critics say the 21-month-old reorganization of the inspectors - combining customs, immigration and agricultural inspectors from three agencies into a single entity in the Department of Homeland Security - has done little to solve the system's basic problems.
His comments echo the 9-11 commission, the blue-ribbon panel that investigated the hijackings that sent passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and - during a flight thought headed for the U.S. Capitol or the White House - a field in Pennsylvania. In 2001, commission investigators said, determining who got into the country and who didn't was largely the result of an inspector's ''gut'' instinct. There were few standards, little training - and an overwhelming emphasis on getting people through quickly.
Orlando was a prime example of how arbitrary that system could be. Investigators for the 9-11 commission reported that two would-be hijackers were stopped by inspectors at Orlando International Airport because they spoke little English, listed no local destination and had no return tickets. One was admitted; the other was sent back.
Three years later, screening procedures have changed. Integrated police and intelligence computers match passenger manifests with ''watch lists'' of suspected terrorists while their planes are still in the air. Virtually every overseas tourist entering the country is digitally photographed and fingerprinted.
Customs and Border Protection inspectors are conducting more in-depth questioning of men and students from countries in the Middle East and elsewhere where terrorists are active, inspectors said.
But the fundamental nature of the job remains the same.
''This is a monotonous, customer-oriented law-enforcement job,'' said Janice Kephart, a 9-11 commission lawyer and investigator who interviewed inspectors who dealt with the hijackers. ''There is a natural difficulty in enforcing the law by looking at (traveler) behavior, reviewing travel documents, asking questions and listening for answers, checking databases - and doing all of this while smiling - in 45 seconds."
CBP officials say they are making improvements every day while re-engineering an agency with 19,000 inspectors, including 160 assigned to OIA, Orlando Sanford International and the Port Canaveral cruise port. ''I can say unequivocally, we're doing a hell of a better job than before 9-11,'' said Karl Brown, who supervises Central Florida inspectors for the CBP. ''Our vigilance is that much more acute."
Getting into America with a tourist visa has never been difficult. More than 1.1 million international passengers flew into Orlando and Sanford in the past year; the recent peak was 1.7 million in 2000. Often, they arrive in jumbo-jet loads of 400 or more.
With hundreds of travelers waiting to begin vacations after long flights, front-line inspections often last a minute or less. It is a system that was - and still can be - beaten, according to several inspectors, who spoke to the Orlando Sentinel on the condition they not be identified.
''If someone wants to come here to cause harm or terrorism, he can,'' said a 10-year inspector who insisted on anonymity for fear of agency retaliation. ''A known terrorist won't make it through, but a (terrorist) with a clean record will.''
Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were not known to U.S. intelligence or border agencies when they entered the country.
''Homeland security looks so good on paper and on TV,'' one Sanford airport inspector said. ''But nothing has changed.''
Inspectors complain that they have had little training in key subjects such as al-Qaeda or fraudulent-document detection. Several said they remain ill-prepared to do one another's jobs, as the CBP tries to combine customs, agriculture and immigration-inspection duties in one class of front-line officers.
''It's all smoke and mirrors,'' one Port Canaveral inspector said about training.
Brown, however, contends his agency has been ''in the training mode'' since the agencies merged: cross-training all inspectors, re-schooling some as trainers at the agency's academy and making experienced people temporary supervisors to mentor front-line personnel. All officers also received eight hours of training in how to spot fraudulent documents, he said, and daily briefings were added to share the latest intelligence.
But inspectors said the daily briefings during the summer and fall have focused on etiquette and professionalism - reacting to the more than 1,700 complaints for rude and unprofessional behavior that were filed against officers nationwide from October 2003 to last July, according to CBP documents.
Inspectors say there still are no standards or precise criteria defining what's required to enter the country in terms of money, credit cards and a specific local destination. So inspectors and supervisors still decide case by case.
CBP headquarters spokesman Bill Anthony said inspectors are taught to consider the ''totality of circumstances. Therefore, there are no fixed guidelines as to how much money, etc., an applicant should or may have with them at time of entry.''
In the mid-1990s, a congressionally mandated "45-minute rule" forced immigration inspectors to quickly process foreign flights - and they were expected to average 45 seconds per visitor. Those pressures contributed to an inspectors' mentality of being travel ''facilitators'' rather than border police, investigators say.
Congress has since lifted the regulation, and the CBP has changed its standard - to 60 minutes per flight and 60 seconds per passenger - to allow time for digital photographing and fingerprinting of foreign passengers in the so-called US-VISIT program. The CBP says the numbers are ''informal parameters'' set up to help the agency manage and analyze staffing and traffic patterns at ports nationwide.
But local inspectors say the new standards - just like the old ones - are used to pressure them to keep the lines moving. Current and former inspectors at OIA, Sanford and Port Canaveral said many colleagues ''DTR'' travelers - pass and send them ''down the road'' - instead of asking questions and risking a complaint for holding up lines.
''You never get in trouble for banging someone in,'' said Dan Tarasevich, a CBP senior inspector who retired last year from OIA.
Steve Santiago, a CBP inspector in Sanford and an official with the American Federation of Government Employees/National Homeland Security Council Local 1917, said he is concerned that the agency is sacrificing "quantity versus quality" of travelers screened. He said supervisors routinely ask inspectors, ''Why is it taking so long?'' to clear a flight.
"The rush to admit persons into the U.S. without full inspections because of 'unofficial' time constraints is detrimental to our security as a nation," Santiago said.
Still, inspectors locally refuse entry to far fewer foreigners than they did in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2001. That year, 970,000 foreigners passed through OIA and 540 were sent back - a rate of about 1 per 1,800 visitors. A year later, passenger traffic had dropped by 300,000 - and the rejection rate was 1 per 2,316. The number of passengers and the rejection rate stayed roughly the same in 2003. But through August of this year, passenger traffic rose to 764,000 and only 200 were rejected - a rate of about 1 per 3,800.
''They're clearly less picky on people they're admitting into the country,'' said Jessica Vaughan, a former State Department consular officer and Center For Immigration Studies analyst. ''I would argue the chance of refusing a terrorist is greater if we are refusing more people.''
Brown of the CBP said the drop is because of the ''pendulum swinging back'' from the extreme security after 9-11 to today, when the agency uses more discretion with passengers - and grants more temporary entries nationwide called ''paroles'' for minor paperwork problems.
''Obviously things tightened up after 9-11,'' Brown said. ''Now we're into discretion within the law. We're at a balance now.''

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