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US: Debate Continues on Transportation, Border Issues - 2002-01-16

Open U.S. borders are essential for both commerce and travel but are also a symbol of democracy. But the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have renewed a long-time debate on just how secure U.S. borders and the transportation system truly are.

On a typical day in the United States, 1.3 million people enter the nation through airports from more than 2,500 passenger jets. Four-hundred thousand cars and trucks cross over from Canada and Mexico, and 600 cargo and passenger ships steam into ports.

This huge amount of traffic places a strain on the thousands of U.S. customs agents and Coast Guardsmen and women, whose jobs are to ensure safe borders. Their job has been made especially challenging since September 11 because nobody knows where, when, and how the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil will come through the transportation system.

At a Washington forum sponsored by the independent Transportation Research Board, Tuesday, experts debated how to keep borders safe while not turning the country into a sealed fortress.

John McGowan is Executive Director for Enforcement and Planning for the U.S. Customs Service. He says domestic and foreign businesses and their partners can take action at the point of origin. "The same things you do to create a secure environment for on-time delivery the same thing you do to ensure a manufacturer has quality control on the manufacturing floor, can be used to defend yourselves from becoming victims of terrorists," says Mr. McGowan.

Mr. McGowan suggests the United States form international partnerships and information sharing, similar to those used to fight drug trafficking in the 1980s.

This includes extensive inspections of cargo before it crosses the border.

Stephen Flynn of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, says if the United States wants open borders, it must be prepared to accept what he calls the cost of doing business. "Americans were not invulnerable on September 10, they're not going to be invulnerable post September 11," he says. "We live in a dangerous world and we're an open society what must stay open to remain prosperous."

Mr. Flynn advises U.S. officials to turn their attention to foreign ports as a starting point for fighting terrorism. "You cannot do homeland security at home because most of the stuff we're trying to protect are networks that connect us to the rest of the world," he says. "So homeland security ultimately is going to be assured by allowing us to stay connected to that world with a sufficient level of security that we can do business in it."

Mr. Flynn said if the United States ever experiences another terrorist attack, it must have come through what he calls a correctable breach of security - not an absence of security.