Stopping TB at the Border: What Went Wrong An American man infected with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis was able to fly to and from Europe, and then drive into the United States over the Canadian border. European authorities were unable to detain him; border guards near upstate New York didn't stop him from re-entering the United States.
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Stopping TB at the Border: What Went Wrong

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Stopping TB at the Border: What Went Wrong

Stopping TB at the Border: What Went Wrong

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away for the next month on paternity leave. I'm John Ydstie.

Homeland Security officials are looking into the breach in security that allowed a man diagnosed with a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis to enter the U.S. at the Canadian border. U.S. officials say he should have been stopped by border guards but wasn't.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here to discuss what this says about border security. Dina, where did the security breakdown begin?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it actually began with his leaving Europe. There were some debate as to whether or not Andrew Speaker was told that he could not fly or should not fly when he flew to Europe for his wedding and his honeymoon. He says doctors at the CDC suggested he not fly. What's not in question at all is that he knew he shouldn't be flying home.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. He clearly knew - he was clearly told he wasn't supposed to fly home.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. The CDC contacted him in Europe, and they said he needed to go to a clinic there and not take another commercial flight. But he was worried that doctors in Europe weren't going to be able to help him if he had this resistant strain of TB, so he was determined to get to the specialized clinic in Denver. He told the television network yesterday that he thought if he stayed in Europe, he'd end up dying there.

YDSTIE: But the CDC really didn't have any power to keep him in Europe.

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, this is where it gets problematic. Speaker was put on the CDC medical warning list, but it doesn't force him to stay where he is. And, unfortunately, there was a timing issue as well. The Italian authorities didn't get this warning in time, so he flew from Italy to Montreal.

Now it isn't clear why he wasn't stopped at Montreal. Instead, he was permitted to leave the airport and drive across the U.S. border at Champlain, New York. The medical alert from the CDC did pop up like it was supposed to on the border guard's screen at the Canadian border.

And the border official actually did confirm that Speaker was the man connected to the alert. But then he made this judgment call, a judgment call that he really shouldn't have made. He decided that Speaker didn't look sick, so he waved him through. And that border inspector has been put on administrative leave.

YDSTIE: So the national concern after hearing this story is that if Mr. Speaker could get through the border, why shouldn't we feel certain that a terrorists couldn't get through as easily as well?

TEMPLE-RASTON: People in the intelligence community I spoke to said this is a whole different kettle of fish. You catch terrorists with prior intelligence with the same sort of alerts that actually held Mr. Speaker up at the border. And they said that a border guard would never have made a judgment call on the terrorists.

The Customs and Border Protection office is the one who has officers sitting at the booth at the border. And the screens on those booths are connected to an FBI system known as ViCap(ph) - a violent crime and terrorism operation file.

It was originally made for tracking street gang members nationwide, and it started including terrorists after 9/11. Even a person who is of interest to the FBI, they are put into that system and it pops up on the screen. So when someone comes across the border and they're in that system, it'd be pretty hard for them to be waved by.

The real worry comes from the fact that the border card - guard didn't bother to hold Andrew Speaker. The fact that the guard said he looked healthy shows a real lack of training.

YDSTIE: What's the next step in seeing that this doesn't happen again?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, actually, there's a lot of hand wringing going on. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general is looking into it, and they haven't yet launched a formal investigation. But right now, they're making phone calls and asking employees what happened, so they can fill in the gap that Andrew Speaker managed to get through.

YDSTIE: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.

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