WASHINGTON - The disclosure that al-Qaida operatives may try to sneak into the United States through Mexico is intensifying demands to secure the border and fueling criticism over President Bush's recommendation to slash a proposed increase in Border Patrol agents next year.
Bush is requesting 210 more agents, far fewer than the 2,000 additional agents authorized by Congress last year. Democrats and Republicans call the proposal inadequate to secure the porous border against illegal immigrants, smugglers and terrorists.
The criticism escalated after the Homeland Security Department's deputy secretary said recent information gathered from investigations and detentions "strongly suggests that al-Qaida has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States," possibly through the use of human smuggling networks.
"Several al-Qaida leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico," James Loy said in prepared testimony Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The al-Qaida leaders, he said, also believe that "illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons."
While department officials have "no conclusive evidence" that al-Qaida operatives have crossed the border, Loy told lawmakers that attacking the U.S. homeland "remains at the top of al-Qaida's operational priority list."
"The strategic intent of al-Qaida's remaining leaders and planners to attempt another dramatic homeland attack is clear," he said. "What is less clear are al-Qaida's current operational capabilities to execute such an attack."
Border security has become a high priority in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and it is emerging as a central theme in what promises to be a protracted congressional effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
The border provisions in Bush's 2006 budget proposal, presented to Congress on Feb. 7, came less than two months after the president signed an intelligence bill that authorized the government to add 10,000 agents over five years, starting with an increase of 2,000 in 2006. The additional agents would almost double the Border Patrol's force of 11,000 agents, most of whom are deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The president signs the bill and turns around and says I was just kidding," said agent T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents Border Patrol agents. Bush's decision to increase the force by 210 instead of 2,000, Bonner said, constituted another blow to already sagging morale among the nation's 10,800 agents.
The president's overall spending request for 2006 cuts scores of programs in an attempt to shrink the federal deficit and finance military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But many lawmakers said they expected full funding of the Border Patrol increase under a tacit understanding between Congress and the White House when they were negotiating the terms of the National Intelligence Reform Act.
"When Congress passed the intelligence reform bill in December, we made clear the need for increased patrols along our borders," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a statement. "We need to do more than the president's budget proposes."
During a recent CNN interview, Hutchison's Texas colleague, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, also called for a "larger number" of agents and said the federal government has to "step up" its border-security efforts.
"Our borders are too porous," said Cornyn, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on immigration.