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Border security plan is based on absurdity

WASHINGTON -- The General Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, has given failing grades to a Bush administration plan to catch terrorists trying to enter the United States at seaports and airports.

Called US-VISIT, it would employ space-age technology, including biometric eye scans and digitized fingerprints, to catch evil-doers before they could enter the country, or as they tried to leave it.

The bureaucratic blob created to make this happen is the Department of Homeland Security, whose incompetence was highlighted by Hurricane Katrina.

Homeland Security is also the agency in charge of imposing new restrictions on crossing the Canadian border from Washington state to Maine. The gadgetry for US-VISIT would ultimately play a role in new land-crossing rules, which are supposed to start in 2008.

In grading US-VISIT, investigators said Homeland Security did not know how much it would cost, whether it would work or whether it was even properly tested.

The government has had more than seven years to do this right.

Now, Homeland Security has less than two years to set up checkpoint stations that grievously threaten struggling economies all across northern America.

It will be like putting up Berlin walls between Dallas and Fort Worth, between Maryland and the District of Columbia, as well as the automaking centers on both sides of the Great Lakes.

In January, the Bush administration did something that it does best -- staged grand announcements on policy, backed up with shabby research and no real planning.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced they would require a wallet-sized PASS card for border travelers.

It will be issued this year, Rice and Chertoff stated in the State Department's great auditorium, to the applause of government clerks ordered into the chamber.

Word comes now from Luke Rich, senior consultant for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, that the administration may not even put out a regulation describing the required documents for land crossings until next year.

Rich, who has been haunting the halls of Congress, said, "I don't know whether this is good news or bad." The potential delay, he said, gives opponents more time to block the PASS (passport) rule. But it also means Homeland Security would have less time to get it running right before 2008.

The passport rule is the product of bullheadedness built on an absurdity.

The assumption is that Islamist terrorists are dumb. That they would carry in a dirty nuclear bomb, or biological device, across heavily guarded bridges at Buffalo or Detroit. Not across any one of the more than 200 unguarded roads between Canada and the United States.

Congress has responded with measured timidity, except for Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

"I am opposed to the addition of any new documents that further burden the economy by placing restrictions on the passage of commerce, education and leisure between Buffalo and our neighbors to the north," Higgins said Friday.

The failure of other members of the Senate and House to make this plain declaration is a measure of either their cynicism or their fear of dealing with the empty charge of looking "soft on terrorism" in a midterm election.

Here's hoping Higgins can inject some starch into his colleagues.

There is one other hope of stopping this thing: The election in Canada of a Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, who will surely get along with President Bush much better than his Liberal predecessors.

"There may be a lot [Harper] can do with a simple phone call to the White House," a hopeful diplomat at the Embassy said the other day.


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