U.S. border agents split on terror defenses

Poll of frontline officers shows 53% say nation is safer than before 9/11

August 24, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Frontline U.S. border security officers are divided over whether the nation is safer from terrorism now than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, and many say morale in the Department of Homeland Security is low, according to a poll released yesterday.

A slim majority, 53%, of Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors say they believe that the country is safer, while 44% believe it is no safer or less safe, according to the survey of 1,000 officers by Peter D. Hart Research Association. Unions representing about 16,000 agents and inspectors sponsored the poll.

"The bureaucratic bungling that plagued and hampered the old Immigration and Naturalization Service has not only survived, it has thrived in the new Department of Homeland Security," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, one of the unions that participated in the survey. "Bureaucrats are not listening to the frontline border protection personnel."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, called the poll "blatantly biased and inaccurate." "I think it misleads the employees and misinforms them at a time when they need to know we appreciate their sacrifice," said Christiana Halsey.

Department officials complained that the poll of 500 Border Patrol agents and 500 immigration inspectors surveyed only union members, but the unions say they represent about two-thirds of these employees.

Border Patrol agents guard the land borders, mainly the frontier with Mexico, while most immigration inspectors are stationed at airports. Before the terrorist attacks, catching illegal immigrants was the central mission for both.

Since Sept. 11, Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors have been given an additional mission in support of the war on terrorism. But in its recently released report examining the causes of and responses to the terrorist attacks, the Sept. 11 commission concluded that those new roles and responsibilities have not been fully worked out.

The poll found that 60% of agents and inspectors rated morale as low or very low. Respondents cited poor management, mistrust of the rank-and-file by management, lack of equipment and training, and increased bureaucracy as factors behind their disenchantment.

About 35% of the officers said they were not satisfied they had the tools and training to stop potential terrorists, while 29% said they were "somewhat" satisfied. Around 18% said they were "fairly satisfied," while 16% said they were "very satisfied."

The officers said they lacked access to the most up-to-date databases of terrorists and criminal suspects and access to the most sophisticated technology. And they complained about weak support from the Homeland Security Department.

Halsey questioned those findings, saying the department has invested in radiation detectors and a border screening system that uses fingerprints and digital photographs to monitor arriving visitors.

However, the poll found that 62% of the officers believe that the department can do more to protect the country from terrorism. Conversely, 36% agreed the department was "doing as much as could reasonably be expected."

The telephone survey was taken from July 30 to Aug. 7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5% for the Border Patrol agents, and 6.3 % for the immigration inspectors.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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