Cooked up in 1995 as a way of easing border travel from Mexico to the United States for those who qualify for pre-approval, the so-called Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection Program, SENTRI for short, has been credited with helping to cut travel time for program participants at the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro ports of entry.
As a February 18 audit by the inspector general of U.S. Homeland Security describes the program, "Participants voluntarily provide personally identifiable information to [Customs and Border Protection], undergo background checks, and use dedicated lanes that allow CBP to maintain border integrity, security, and law enforcement responsibilities."
'However, some program members have abused their privileges and transported illicit goods across the border. Smugglers and drug traffickers have also targeted program participants as conduits for illegal cross-border activities. In addition, some CBP officers serving at ports of entry potentially pose an insider threat."
In their heavily redacted report, the auditors cite multiple security breaches involving United States customs officials gone bad.
"In January 2013 a CBP officer was convicted of allowing a wanted fugitive to enter the United States from Mexico without inspection. While on duty, the CBP officer entered false information about the fugitive’s vehicle into a government data system, which allowed ingress through [SENTRI]."
While noting "significant improvements" in vehicle and pedestrian screening and internal security since its first review in 2004, the inspector general's report says many gaps remain. Agents interviewed by the auditors praised high-tech devices such as radio-frequency identification gadgets used to read SENTRI cards work 90 percent of the time. Then the report goes on to say, "However, CBP officers said the license plate readers..." The rest of the paragraph is redacted.
Customs administrators have cut down on the chances of insider crime by "prohibiting officers from processing family members and close acquaintances," as well as "conducting covert testing and performing pre employment polygraph screening," according to the audit.
"However, additional improvements can be made," including, "random polygraph screening for current employees and [expanded] covert testing."
In addition, customs officers should get late word of their inspection lane assignments so that they aren't tempted to schedule illegal entries with co-conspirators.
"For example, in March 2013 a CBP officer was convicted on bribery and smuggling charges for receiving bribes to admit more than 100 undocumented aliens through a [Port of Entry] by providing his on-duty lane assignment information to drivers.
"Ensuring that officers do not have access to personal cellular phones or electronic devices, while on-duty, is an important integrity measure implemented by CBP. In addition, providing limited advance notice of lane assignments is prudent to mitigate opportunities for officers to communicate their assignments."
In their response, administrators said they had made that change.
The report goes on to recommend that customs agents not be assigned to duty in their home territories.
An "officer’s hometown was considered to be within a [redacted] mile radius of an assigned duty location.
"When CBP assigns an officer or agent to his or her hometown, it increases the likelihood of having a connection with family or friends in the area, and may risk and officer or agent placing that connection above the CBP mission when the two intersect.
"The issue becomes compounded when family or friends have a criminal history, as [Internal Affairs] research determined that some officers and agents did have criminal associates."
Some of the recommended changes are not likely to go down well with the labor union representing the customs agents, the report notes.
“Officials from [Internal Affairs] and [Office of Field Operations] want recurrent polygraph screening for CBP officers. Several CBP officials indicate it may be necessary for a legislative change and extensive negotiations with the CBP’s union to allow CBP to require random polygraph screening.”