WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security was put on the hot seat Wednesday when a House committee asked why a man was allowed to board international flights despite being infected with a dangerous strain of tuberculosis.
The hearing looked at the timeline of events that led to Atlanta lawyer Andrew Speaker's departure from and return to the U.S.
House members also asked about human errors in trust,instructions and lack of communication.
“Ladies and gentleman,we dodged a bullet,” said Rep.,Bennie G. Thompson,D-Miss.,chair of the Homeland Security Committee.
Thompson directed questions about the breakdown to the departments involved: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,Department of Homeland Security,Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration.
“When are we going to stop dodging bullets,and start protecting Americans?” he asked.
With references to Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina,the tuberculosis incident was at times called a “failure of initiative.” Committee members said they didn't intend to point fingers,but they did ask pointed questions,in particular about how someone can cross a border despite being on a list saying he should be detained.
“The system works as intended,” Jeffrey Runge,chief medical officer for the Department of Homeland Security,said. “It seems to be a single point of human failure.”
Runge pointed to the border agent who allowed Speaker,31,an Atlanta lawyer, and carrier of XDR-TB (extensively drug resistant tuberculosis),to cross the border from Canada to Champlain,N.Y.
The agent has been placed on administrative leave.
The agency “had an opportunity to detain Mr. Speaker at the border,and we missed,” said Ralph Basham,commissioner of customs and border protection for the Department of Homeland Security. “I can offer no defense about what happened that day in Champlain.”
Other committee members hinted at a possible staffing problem for the border.
“This issue has nothing to do with staffing,” Basham said. “This was a clear disregard for a very clear instruction.”
These instructions called for Speaker to be detained,isolated,masked and placed in a ventilated area. The border patrol agent who waved Speaker did so because he didn't look sick.
Committee members also questioned the incident's implications.
“What you've done is undermine American confidence in protecting the border,” Rep. Mark Souder,D-Ill.,said.
Rep. Peter King,R-N.Y.,added,”This has very serious implications for the United States.”
Other questions focused on Speaker's ability to travel and how he was able to evade law enforcement.
“Failure for us to stop this individual from traveling is inexcusable,” Basham said.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter,D-Colo.,said,”There were,like,10 places to stop this guy,and everyone failed.”
The committee uncovered numerous errors that allowed Speaker to leave the U.S. for his European wedding and honeymoon by eluding the CDC,TSA and Department of Homeland Security.
They included a delay of placing his name on a no-fly list to not stopping him at the Canadian-U.S. border.
“We made decisions … that the patient would cooperate,” Julie Gerberding,the CDC's director. “That's a very sad lesson learned for the CDC.”
Gerberding said there is a difference between terrorists and infectious persons on a no-fly list. She said the CDC is more inclined to give the infectious person the benefit of the doubt.
Other focused more on the system than the border agent.
“Let's make no mistake. The system failed,” Rep. Yvette Clark,D-N.Y.,said.
Rep. Al Green,D-Texas,added,”The border patrol agent failed us,but we also failed him.”
Others attacked Speaker.
The most heated statements came from Rep. Dan Lungren,R-Calif.
“The person who is responsible for this is Mr. Speaker,” he said. “In this case,if the facts are as they appear to be,we have failed that test. I hope you'll consider firing this person and other people involved.”
“He knew what he was doing was wrong,” Rep. Christopher Shays,R-Conn.,said. “He was a walking biological weapon.”
“In my opinion,Mr. Speaker was a wakeup call,” Green said. “We can not allow this to be treated as a one-time occurrence.”
Some members said the incident reminded them of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina,with a poor government response.
“Until there's an emergency,until there's an incident,we don't see appropriate procedures,” Rep. Nita Lowey,D-N.Y.,said.
But Rep. Loretta Sanchez,D-Calif.,cautioned,”No matter how many safeguards we put in place,it always comes down to an individual”
Questions then focused on what should be done in the future and what steps are being taken to ensure better responses.
“There are three main areas we think we can improve,” Gerberding said. They include: the isolation of the individual,speed of notification and transfer of the individual. “In retrospect,we realize by giving this patient the benefit of the doubt we put other people in danger.”
Added Basham,”We could have done a better job of coordinating.”
Andrew Speaker is receiving treatment at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.