Inspectors: Security lags when traffic jams
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT - On a weekend night in March, 12 big rigs from Detroit were lined up on the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge, waiting to be searched by inspectors who were on the lookout for a produce truck suspected of carrying drugs.

But before the Canadians could scan the trucks, their supervisor received a call from the U.S. company that owns the bridge. The trucks were snarling traffic. And the bridge's owner wanted traffic cleared quickly, an inspector working that night said.

What happened next, according to customs inspectors and security experts, is what routinely happens on the U.S.-Canadian border when security clashes with commerce: Commerce wins.

"We stopped the inspection," a Canadian inspector said, and let the trucks pass.

Despite fears of terrorism and other security concerns at U.S. ports and border crossings since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. and Canadian inspectors on the Ambassador Bridge and elsewhere say they are routinely told by supervisors to wave vehicles through checkpoints without scrutiny to satisfy commercial interests.

Though government officials in the United States and Canada deny safety is compromised, inspectors say security lapses are a particular problem at the Ambassador Bridge - the busiest northern border crossing, and one of only two along the U.S.-Canadian border that are privately owned.

In one practice known as "lane flushing," inspectors at the bridge - owned by the Detroit International Bridge Co. - say supervisors force them to wave through long lines of cars and trucks to ease bridge congestion, without asking even cursory questions of drivers or passengers.

"When the traffic backs up to a certain point, you know the call is going to come" from the bridge company, one bridge inspector told the Free Press. "Then management jumps like lapdogs."

Robert Perez, port director of Detroit for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, denied lane flushing takes place. Perez said his office tries to cooperate with bridge and tunnel operators, and that inspectors might view that cooperation as caving in to commercial interests.

"The people in the community, both in Detroit and Windsor, should feel good about the fact that their border crossings are safer than ever before," Perez said.

The Detroit Free Press interviewed more than a dozen inspectors, former inspectors, DHS officials, customs supervisors, politicians and border security experts - including six inspectors assigned to the Detroit-Windsor border. All but one of the inspectors - a Canadian union leader - spoke on condition of anonymity, noting agency restrictions on media interviews and saying they feared job reprisals if named.

The allegations come as U.S. border security has faced its closest scrutiny since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Congressional opposition recently scuttled a plan to have a Dubai-based firm manage six U.S. ports. And last week, as Congress debated tougher border security as part of an immigration package, a Senate subcommittee was investigating how undercover agents drove into the United States from Canada and Mexico with nuclear material.

U.S. and Canadian customs officials, and representatives from the bridge company - owned by trucking magnate Manuel (Matty) Moroun - say security is never compromised for commerce and say, in fact, the reverse is true: Better technology, improved facilities and better cooperation between business and government make the border more secure and efficient.

Perez noted that the bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel now feature high-tech surveillance - invisible to travelers - such as radiation detectors and electronic pre-screening programs. And customs agents in Detroit seized more than 5,000 pounds of drugs last year, an eight fold increase over the previous year, he said.

Dan Stamper, president of the bridge company, said it has spent millions to expand facilities since Sept. 11, and would never ask inspectors to "give up any of their security initiatives to move traffic faster."

Bridge inspectors concede that, even under the best of circumstances, there is no way they could fully inspect every vehicle entering the United States without also crippling trade. Thus, they say, it is not unusual for drivers to pass inspection with only a few questions asked.

What they object to, they say, are orders from supervisors to wave through long lines of cars and trucks with no questioning at all. Sometimes, inspectors say, they have been told to stop inspecting a particular vehicle to open more booths when traffic backs up.

"They call and say `You're holding us up too much.' And they always win that argument," said Charles Showalter, national president of one of the two unions representing U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. He said when inspectors or the union object, DHS officials "call it `acceptable risk.' It's `Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.' Nobody wants to slow down commerce."

Bridge inspectors say this can happen once a week or more at the Ambassador Bridge - the only privately owned crossing on the U.S.-Canadian border, except for a bridge in International Falls, Minn. However, they also say that inspectors are also pressured to speed traffic at government-owned crossings that are run by private companies.

The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, for example, is run by a private company but owned by the City of Detroit on one side and Windsor on the other. Toll profits are shared with the cities.

Tolls collected at the Ambassador Bridge go to the bridge company, owned by Moroun of Grosse Pointe Shores.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, traffic has declined about 30 percent at Detroit's border crossings.

To counter memories of long delays in the months after Sept. 11, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel tries to keep waits under 20 minutes. Both the tunnel and bridge post wait times on their Web sites. During rush hour on an evening last week, bridge travel to and from Canada was under 15 minutes. The tunnel wait was under 6 minutes.

Neal Belitsky, executive vice president of the Detroit & Canada Tunnel Corp., which operates the tunnel, said he considers a 20-minute wait as "the outer limits for acceptability" for the roughly 29,000 vehicles that pass through daily. "When we see traffic getting to that threshold, we will start calling customs and saying we need more lanes," he said. "That's a standard part of the business and we all do it."

He adds there are times when customs denies his request and he backs off.

Danny Yen, spokesman for the Canadian Border Services Agency in Windsor, said, "We've had our challenges" with the bridge company, but "we never compromise security for trade. It's a balance."

But inspectors say the rush to speed traffic has spawned practices - such as lane flushing - that put security at risk.

"Lane flushing happens all over the place, at every crossing," Showalter said. "The traffic backs up. The supervisor gets a call" from private border businesses. "They run an officer with a canine through the line of cars, and the officers on the primary inspection lanes are told not to ask questions."

About 9.4 million vehicles crossed the Ambassador Bridge in 2005, according to bridge officials. Collectively, the bridge, tunnel and a commercial train tunnel account for nearly a quarter of all U.S. trade with Canada, the bulk of it by trucks crossing the bridge. When trade is delayed at the border, Michigan's automobile-reliant economy suffers most, according to a recent Ontario Chamber of Commerce study. Automakers have built an industry model around a "just-in-time" delivery system that depends on parts crossing promptly. A delay of even a few hours can cost millions.

Perez, the Detroit port director, said reforms intended to balance trade and security issues mean that some vehicles don't have to be checked as frequently. The government's "trusted traveler" programs, for instance, allow pre screened businesses to cross faster and with fewer inspections, though critics say such efforts could be exploited by terrorists.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, a union representing 150,000 federal workers, including inspectors, said that pressure to speed trade means "something's got to give." What usually gives, she said, is thorough inspection work.

"The balance of trade and security became a battle that we really lost to trade years ago," said Joseph King, a professor and terrorism expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who worked for U.S. Customs for 37 years. "Customs has become an honor system where the industry controls it, and periodically the government comes in and monitors."

And yet, ask Moroun - whose company gets a reported $60 million annually in bridge revenue and spent $645,000 on lobbying and consulting over the past nine years - about inspectors and he says, "They're very independent."

On the other side of the river, Marie-Claire Coupal, a Canadian customs inspector and local union leader, said she doesn't feel very independent lately. Of Moroun, she says, "He calls the shots around here."

The bridge company's Stamper responds that his firm has a duty to keep trade moving. And he notes that a recent study rated the Ambassador's travel times "clearly superior" to six other crossings.

Sept. 11, Stamper said, was a wake-up call for him, too. After the attacks, heightened security led to a 14-hour bridge delays. Choking the economy was, after all, a major goal of the terrorists, he said.

So the main threat Stamper sees is not a dirty bomb, or suicide bombers.

"Our biggest threat," he said, "is our own government's reaction to the border