Spanberger Presses for Increased Funding for Technology to Detect Illicit Fentanyl at U.S. Border

This Bipartisan Effort Comes After U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Personnel Seized 9,500 Pounds of Fentanyl in FY2024

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger joined a bipartisan group of her colleagues in supporting the research, development, and funding of initiatives to combat the flow of fentanyl and other contraband at our borders. 

In 2022, there were 2,490 drug overdose deaths in Virginia — and 79 percent of these deaths involved fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol. Border security technology used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), such as Non-Intrusive Inspection (NII) technology, can detect narcotics, weapons, and human smuggling at land ports of entry (POEs). In Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) scanned 7.6 million conveyances, leading to the interdiction of more than 100,000 pounds of narcotics using large-scale NII systems. NII technology also increases savings and efficiency, as examinations using NII systems can be done in just eight minutes, compared to physical examinations which take up to two hours. In FY2022, NII technology saved $1 billion in annual operational costs and between $5.8 billion and $17.5 billion in costs from delays.

In a letter to DHS Undersecretary for Security Science and Technology (S&T) Dimitri Kusnezov and CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller, Spanberger and 12 of her colleagues pressed the administration to invest in the research and development of NII technology. Additionally, the lawmakers outlined how this technology would equip CBP personnel with safer and more effective tools to stop the flow of contraband into the United States. The lawmakers also requested a briefing on the progress made toward deployment of newly optimized passive NII muon tomography technology at and between U.S. ports of entry. Their letter comes after CBP reported alarming amounts of fentanyl seizures — with 9,500 pounds of fentanyl seized in FY24 alone.

“To achieve enhanced border security, it is essential to continue innovating beyond the existing technologies of x-ray – including Multi-Energy Portal (MEP) systems – currently deployed at POEs. Unlike passive NII muon tomography technology, x-ray cannot penetrate dense materials such as lead, water, granite, machine parts, and lumber,” wrote Spanberger and her colleagues. “As you know, the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 required scanning 100% of U.S.-bound maritime cargo containers by 2012, which has long been delayed, and the Securing America’s Ports Act signed into law in 2021 mandates that a plan be made to scan 100% of vehicles, trucks, and freight trains at all U.S. land POEs. However, because of the limitations of the scanning technology currently deployed by CBP, only a small percentage of cargo is actually scanned. Passive NII muon tomography technology could therefore assist CBP in more effectively securing our borders.”

Their letter continued, “Given recent advancements in AI and ML technology allowing for passive muon tomography systems to identify humans inside cargo, we support the continued advancement of such anomaly-detecting algorithms to also work towards the identification of substances such as fentanyl and other dangerous contraband. These advancements, aided by the planned S&T and CBP collaboration, would present a major step forward in border security as they would yield significantly greater transparency into what is attempting to cross our borders, including fentanyl and other illicit substances, and would provide CBP personnel with safer and more effective tools to secure our borders.”

Click here to read the letter, and the full letter text is below.

Dear Dr. Kusnezov and Acting Commissioner Miller,

We write today to express our support for the research and development initiatives at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), specifically those regarding the optimization of existing passive scanning technologies for increased border security. These technologies support our shared goals of securing the United States border and stopping the flow of illegal narcotics (most notably fentanyl), illicit guns, weapons of mass destruction, and human smuggling.

We understand that S&T and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are collaborating on further optimizing passive non-intrusive inspection (NII) muon tomography technology through developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for the detection of humans and fentanyl, in addition to other dangerous contraband being smuggled in staggering amounts at and between U.S. Ports of Entry (POEs). We would like to express our full support for this critical collaboration and request a briefing within 90 days of receipt of this letter to be kept apprised of progress made toward the deployment of this technology and subsequent briefings after additional meaningful progress has been made. To achieve enhanced border security, it is essential to continue innovating beyond the existing technologies of x-ray – including Multi-Energy Portal (MEP) systems – currently deployed at POEs. Unlike passive NII muon tomography technology, x-ray cannot penetrate dense materials such as lead, water, granite, machine parts, and lumber. Passive muon tomography does not have any such limitations. As you know, the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 required scanning 100% of U.S.-bound maritime cargo containers by 2012, which has long been delayed, and the Securing America’s Ports Act signed into law in 2021 mandates that a plan be made to scan 100% of vehicles, trucks, and freight trains at all U.S. land POEs. However, because of the limitations of the scanning technology currently deployed by CBP, only a small percentage of cargo is actually scanned. Passive NII muon tomography technology could therefore assist CBP in more effectively securing our borders.

Safety concerns for CBP officers, truck drivers, and humans being smuggled across the border in cargo containers also lead us to support new and safer scanning technologies that are radiation free (i.e., passive). As you know, x-ray emits dangerous ionizing radiation, presenting health issues for all involved, while passive NII technology using muon tomography does not emit any ionizing radiation and is safe for CBP officers, other POE personnel, canines, truck drivers, and people that may be hidden inside cargo containers. Given recent advancements in AI and ML technology allowing for passive muon tomography systems to identify humans inside cargo, we support the continued advancement of such anomaly-detecting algorithms to also work towards the identification of substances such as fentanyl and other dangerous contraband. These advancements, aided by the planned S&T and CBP collaboration, would present a major step forward in border security as they would yield significantly greater transparency into what is attempting to cross our borders, including fentanyl and other illicit substances, and would provide CBP personnel with safer and more effective tools to secure our borders.

We understand that on an official trip in February, CBP and S&T officials witnessed first-hand the new human-detection capability of a state-of-the-art passive muon tomography scanning system and were impressed with the technology and its planned application at POEs. During this trip, these DHS officials also learned about how the already-sophisticated anomaly-detection algorithms are being further optimized to detect fentanyl, which x-ray systems are not capable of detecting, especially when such contraband is smuggled inside dense cargo. We encourage S&T and CBP’s continued collaboration to efficiently drive this optimization, and we encourage the immediate deployment of this technology where operationally feasible to significantly enhance our border security at land and sea POEs.

In addition to briefings to be kept apprised of progress, we request the status of the Technology Needs Analysis, which Congress, in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, charged the Secretary of Homeland Security to produce. This report is to include an analysis of the technological needs and gaps along the Southwest border and recent technological advancements, including in muon tomography. According to CBP’s FY25 Congressional Justification, this report was due on December 14, 2023.

Thank you for your service and your continued attention to this important matter.

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