Could the Great Lakes become a tool for terrorists?
Mon, 08 Nov 2010 00:38:13 GMT —
When Sanilac County Sheriff Garry Biniecki looks out from Michigan's thumb at the expansive waters of Lake Huron and the skies above it, he sees a national security weakness that drug smugglers, illegal immigrants, and even terrorists could take advantage of.
It has been an open area for them, says Biniecki.
The sheriff says it is a threat relatively ignored by federal authorities and too massive for his department of 22 deputies to handle.
Where do you start to target 36 miles of shoreline, with limited personnel?
Sanilac County has dozens of miles of shoreline, but Michigan's international border with Canada is more than 700 miles long.
It is basically bad luck if you get caught, says Sanilac County Drug Task Force Director William Gray.
The threat came to the forefront in the minds of Sanilac County investigators one year ago. A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Chopper patrolling overnight noticed a plane flying into Sanilac County from Canada.
The chopper pilot radioed deputies, who rushed to the Sandusky City Airport, and there witnessed a drug drop-off. They arrested suspects on the ground after a chase and confiscated at least $10 million worth of ecstasy and marijuana.
The Sanilac County Sheriff says they found evidence the smugglers had spent months in mid-Michigan, performing reconnaissance at dozens of small airports in uncontrolled airspace, as far west as Grand Ledge, and as far north as Boyne City. They had notes describing the security in place at each facility.
Sandusky City Airport Manager Joe Allen worries criminals are still taking advantage of this small rural airport, and that eventually someone will get hurt.
"It is always in the back of your mind, especially after this happened," says Allen.
He says people who live by and use not only the Sandusky City Airport, but all small airports need to be vigilant.
"It TMs not just this airport. Any rural airport is a target at this time."
Allen says many are easy targets too. They are not staffed around the clock, lack security cameras and fencing, and are often in uncontrolled airspace. This means they have no air traffic control towers and pilots can fly freely.
NBC25 Sports Director Dillon Collier, an experienced pilot took our crew on a flight to show us just how easily one can travel across the region in uncontrolled airspace, which covers much of mid-Michigan.
We learned you don TMt have to radio in to any body, often nobody is at the small airports when you land, and pilots can even operate runway lights from the sky at night, allowing them to land under the cover of darkness undocumented.
"They can drop off, take off again, and no one will ever know," says Allen.
He says the Transportation Security Administration recently inspected the Sandusky City Airport and recommended it get secure fencing and cameras. He agrees they are needed, but says the airport doesn TMt have the money to pay for such improvements. He looked for Federal Grants, but says he learned there were none available.
He thinks that should change, especially considering the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged the threat of terrorists using the very border security weakness that the drug smugglers used.
In the meantime the Sanilac County Sheriff is asking all residents to keep an eye out for suspicious activity at our border that is Lake Huron, in our skies, and at our airports.
Vigilance is everything, says Sheriff Biniecki.
Monday on NBC25 news at 6 and 11 we take a look at just what is being done to improve security as we ride along with the federal agents charged with the daunting task. What they have to say will both make you proud and disturb you.