THE nation must be able to trust those who protect our borders against drugs, illegal immigration and terrorism.
In some cases, federal officers have betrayed that trust. The government must recognize the danger that even one bad officer can cause and develop better means of guarding against it.
This is no time to fall down on security.
A New York Times review documented incidents of bribery and other ethical lapses involving nearly 200 Department of Homeland Security officers and contract workers who accepted about $15 million in illicit payments over the past 10 years. While that number represents less than 1 percent of the DHS workforce, even one compromised officer can do tremendous damage to the nation's safety.
There's also the question of how many incidents the newspaper, or DHS leadership, doesn't know about. There's bound to be more out there.
In some cases, officers let immigrants and drugs into the country illegally, sabotaged investigations into criminal activity and passed confidential government information to drug cartels. The ethical lapses are blamed, in part, on increased overtures from drug dealers and human traffickers frustrated with tighter border security.
But one wonders whether ethically challenged officers also would help terrorists who need intelligence information or travel documents. Where does a bad egg draw the line?
To its credit, the government has acknowledged the problem, saying it has increased ethics training, hired more internal-affairs officers, put a former FBI agent in charge of Border Patrol activities and made employees aware of the possibility that they will be approached by unsavory characters.
But officials should consider still other steps, such as frequent reassignment of officers to different roles within an agency and to different parts of the country to prevent them from getting too close to the bad guys on their watch. Many federal law-enforcement agencies require agents to go wherever they are needed. Perhaps this prerogative should be exercised more vigorously.
In addition, the government should consider heightened use of inter-agency teams, bringing together officers who don't know each other for projects of limited duration. While the department has said it is training employees about the risks of being compromised, it should run espionage-style counterintelligence operations to ferret out wrongdoing.
It also should determine whether some offenses rise to the level of treason, with penalties so severe they could deter others from unethical conduct.
It is a shame that DHS, with a border to patrol, drugs to fight and terrorism to monitor, also has to interdict corruption in its ranks.