Chaffetz shows headless body image in hearing
U.S.-Mexico border • Do environmental laws hamper enforcement efforts? Hearing digs in.
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Washington • An angry Rep. Jason Chaffetz showed images of a headless human body, various severed human appendages and decapitated heads tacked to a fence during a congressional hearing Friday to illustrate the crisis he says exists along the U.S.-Mexico border abutting federal lands.

The Utah Republican, in a hearing looking at whether environmental laws and wilderness protections are hindering the border patrol's ability to secure the international line, was visibly disturbed when a border patrol official said the agency was having "great success" in a section of the Arizona border.

"How can you say that?" Chaffetz said and minutes later warned the audience and online viewers that he didn't plan to show the images but felt it was needed to counter the official's comment. Only later did he acknowledge the photos were taken inside Mexico.

Chaffetz, chairman of an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, held a joint hearing Friday morning with Rep. Rob Bishop, his Utah colleague who chairs a subcommittee over national parks, forests and public lands, questioning whether federal land managers are hindering border security from securing the international line.

Bishop has introduced legislation to allow the border patrol to enter sensitive wilderness areas as part of its mission to apprehend border crossers.

Bishop, too, became animated during the hearing.

"A sovereign country has to control its sovereign lands," Bishop said, noting that a good percentage of public lands has been marked as dangerous to enter because of the porous border. "It is still unsafe for Americans to go into [parts of] America and that is reprehensible. … To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, it's national security, stupid."

Ronald Vitiello, deputy chief of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, testified before the joint hearing that collaboration between his agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages national forests, and the Interior Department has worked well and they've all made great strides in ensuring border patrol agents have the access they need.

"We're having great success in the Tucson sector," Vitiello said.

The comment enraged Chaffetz, prompting him to show the graphic images on two large televisions in the hearing room.

Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., interrupted Chaffetz to ask if he expected the border patrol to also enforce laws in Mexico, where the pictures were taken.

The Mexican side of the international line has seen bloody clashes between drug cartels, with tens of thousands of people reportedly killed; there have not, however, been substantiated reports of similar deaths on the U.S. side.

Chaffetz waived off Tierney's point and continued to complain that protection of endangered species is trumping protecting the border.

"I have a serious problem where we are prioritizing the desert chub fish over national security," Chaffetz said.

Pressed later on why he used images from Mexico to highlight a concern on U.S. soil, Chaffetz said he was given the images from a Texas sheriff and he wanted to note the violence that he says is headed north.

Officials from all three federal departments stressed that cooperation between their agencies is working and that a 2006 agreement to work together on the border — a deal that allows border patrol to access any sensitive areas under urgent circumstances — is still a workable solution.

Tierney, the ranking Democratic member on the Oversight subcommittee, pointed to a Government Accountability Office report that found that 14 out of 17 border patrol sector chiefs said environmental laws were not a hindrance to doing their jobs.

"There are many real challenges in securing our border but by all accounts, environmental restrictions are not one of them," Tierney said.

tburr@sltrib.com