I grew up Catholic so I can dish out a pretty unhealthy dose of self-blame and guilt when I feel like I’ve done something wrong . . . ah heck, I do it whether I’ve done something wrong or not. Our nation tends to do the same – beat itself up about its past wrongs without moving forward. So it wasn’t surprising to hear that in a recent discussion with Mexico our government accepted some responsibility for aiding Mexican drug cartels by way of demand for drugs and gun smuggling.

But it was surprising to hear that we are screening cars, trucks and freight – apparently for the first time – going south into Mexico. In true fashion the US government’s reaction is commensurate with far more than 50 percent of its responsibility, seemingly dismissing the most obvious contributors: pervasive corruption within the Mexican government, increased internal enforcement and tougher US border security. In what appears to be a gesture, either premised on guilt or silly diplomacy, the US is screening southbound traffic for guns and money.

Is this approach really the best use of our resources? Or is this the best response we can come up with even accepting an appropriate share of the blame? Claims that 90 percent of traceable guns found at Mexican crime scenes come from the US have been challenged in the press recently and subsequently clarified by ATF. As it turns out only a small percent – like 17 percent – of the guns found at crime scenes are traceable to US sources. According to ATF approximately 5,114 of the 29,000 guns found at crime scenes from 2007-2008 were traceable to the US. So something like 2500-plus guns a year are smuggled out of the US. Maybe. Some are actually sold to the Mexican government, but find their way to the cartels from corrupt military officials or deserters. So when you get down to it a relatively large number of the guns in Mexico do not come from the US, including grenade launchers and AK-47s which are not manufacturered in the US.

Law enforcement agencies have limited resources. They can’t be everywhere at once to prevent crime. So they use intelligence and other tools to determine probabilities and focus their resources where there is a likely threat. Has DHS undertaken the same analysis to determine whether screening rail cars is targeting the right method of delivery? Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee called this practice of southbound screening into question at a recent subcommittee hearing. He asked CBP officials about known exploitation of freight rail cars to smuggle guns into Mexico. Surprisingly CBP’s answers suggested it did not have intelligence indicating smugglers use of rail cars and when pressed for specifics admitted that since they’ve started screening rail cars they haven’t found a single gun.

During the same hearing Chairman David Price (R-NC) posed questions to the same witnesses about the effectiveness of 100 percent cargo screening, intimating that this may not be a risk-based security program, and came up with similar  answers – no weapons or rad nuke devices found. Instead CBP admitted there was a low probability that a nuclear device would be smuggled into the US using a maritime cargo container. Mr. Rogers and Chairman Price seemed to be driving at the same point about two different security programs that the US taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support.

So are we employing the correct risk management tools to efficiently and effectively use the resources we have? Are we using a risk management analysis that includes guilt and shame instead of objective factors? Before we point the finger at ourselves and implement ineffective security programs we first may want to honestly assess risk . . . and find other ways to exercise diplomacy.

Jeffrey Sural, who currently serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP, is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More
  • Jim Barclay

    To me the real question is whether or not those weapons, albeit only 17% or the total, are being used to shoot at us? If so, stopping 17% beats stopping none.

  • Rick Gordon

    Not so Jim… A risk-based system would ask the question, what is the likely fraction of the 17% that we would stop using available methods versus the opportunity cost of the resources used to chase that 17%? I would much rather place our resources against elements that directly threaten our homeland.