WASHINGTON -- A new report from the Government Accountability Office reveals a critical U.S. border security gap: the security checkpoints themselves.
Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and five months after the Department of Homeland Security tightened inspection procedures, some border officers fail "to recognize the threat associated with dangerous people and goods entering the country," concluded the GAO report, which is due to be released today .
The report - with the most sensitive details omitted for security reasons - is the latest in a series of recent audits that also found gaping holes between border checkpoints and criticized the department's tests of new nuclear detection equipment designed for border crossings.
The most recent report found that several thousand people entered the country illegally through border inspection points last year. The report concluded that staffing shortages and a failure to check documents were largely to blame. Approximately 400 million people cross U.S. border checkpoints every year.
Managers at checkpoints told government auditors that inadequate staffing - a deficit of several thousand border patrol employees - has meant less time for training and has hampered their ability to fully carry out anti- terrorism programs.
Many checkpoints also lack the infrastructure needed to ensure that travelers are inspected. Upgrades, however, would cost about $4 billion. Making a single improvement at many ports could take up to seven years.
Those seeking to cross border checkpoints undetected are fully aware of these weaknesses and take advantage of them, Homeland Security officers found when they interviewed smugglers of illegal immigrants.
Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat who chairs a Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight subcommittee, has scheduled a hearing next week on the report's revelations.
Closing these gaps, he said, is a "critical national security priority. ... Congress must focus more attention and resources on this issue."
In response to the problems at checkpoints, the Homeland Security Department issued revised inspection procedures in July that require officers to obtain photo identification and a declaration of citizenship for all travelers.
When possible, officers are required to run travelers' names through law enforcement databases. The department now checks 50 percent of travelers' names at border crossings, the department stated in response to the report.
The department also has a new program that will require travelers to present machine-readable documents, which will "lift the unfair burden ... on our officers and move toward more secure borders," said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
Government auditors called the new policies "a step in the right direction."