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Border Patrol’s New Strategy Highlights Agency’s Lack of Clear Direction

(Photo: t3hWIT / Flickr)

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Increasing segments of the public are more frequently condemning anti-immigrant policies and practices, and states and communities are rejecting harsh federal drug laws. Yet the border security buildup – which is almost exclusively focused on stemming immigration and on drug enforcement – continues.

The US Border Patrol is one of the few US agencies that is rushing ahead with vast new spending programs, including a $1.5 billion revived virtual fence project and a new half-billion project to more than double its drone fleet.

Pressed by politicians and border security hawks to demonstrate how it intends to “secure the border,” the Border Patrol recently released its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan for border security. The document, only the third such plan in the agency’s history, stresses that border security operations will be “risk-based, intelligence-driven.”

In its new strategy, the Border Patrol appears to be out of step with political and social trends in the homeland, where society and the political community are adopting less one-dimensional, less restrictive and less fear-based policies regarding immigrants and marijuana – the two main targets of the agency’s border security programs.

Also see: The Border Security Muddle Post 9/11

Rather than signaling a new commitment to more cost-effective and strategic operational directions, the new strategy statement serves to highlight the agency’s stunning lack of strategic direction.

A New Strategy Based on Risk Assessments and Intelligence

The Border Patrol describes the new strategy – the third in the agency’s history – as a “risk-based, intelligence-driven” plan to secure the border.

The release of the new strategic plan came on the heels of intense criticism of the Border Patrol’s failure to ensure “operational control” over large sections of the United States’ Southwestern border. “Operational control” was the stated goal of the 2004 strategic plan, which defined the concept as “the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential or other national security objectives.”

The new Border Patrol strategy makes not a single reference to the former goal of operational control, and the plan doesn’t include any performance measures. The 2012-2016 strategy also suffers from a failure to specify on what grounds risks will be assessed, how threats will be evaluated and how new spending will be determined.

In his introduction to the new strategic plan, former Border Patrol chief and current acting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar explained:

The resource base built and the operations conducted over the past two decades have enabled the Border Patrol to focus on developing and implementing a Strategic Plan based on risk: identifying high risk areas and flows and targeting our response to meet those threats.

This risk-based approach is reflected in the core pillars of the Strategic Plan – Information, Integration and Rapid Response. These pillars are central to the 21st century Border Patrol we continue to build. Information and intelligence will empower Border Patrol leadership and agents to get ahead of the threat and to be predictive and proactive.

In his introductory note, Border Patrol Acting Chief Michael Fisher promised: “We will build upon an approach that puts the Border Patrol’s greatest capabilities in place to combat the greatest risks.” The slim 30-page, graphic-laden strategy statement includes 44 uses of the word “risk” and 64 references to “threats.” The Border Patrol promises to “apply the principles of risk-management to its mission set.”

In its new strategic plan, the Border Patrol gives no indication how it will rank or prioritize risks and threats. Instead, it merely describes the new bureaucratic apparatus that will make these risk assessments – graphically illustrating this bureaucratic process with a complex and confusing flow chart.

The Border Patrol claims that it has created the following risk-assessment process:

Integrated Mission Analysis (IMA) uses a systematic and comprehensive methodology to track, assess, and forecast vulnerabilities, consequences, and capabilities of CBP (and, by extension, the US Border Patrol) and matches these with known or potential threats. The resulting Border Assessment Level (BAL) helps CBP answer the question: Is our capability commensurate with the threat?

The IMA process supports the Border Patrol’s risk-based approach to border security by integrating operational and threat-condition assessments. Once harnessed, these operational statistics, threat indicators, and warnings will be used to estimate risk. Outputs from the IMA process will aid security stakeholders in determining operational gaps and critical threats, vulnerabilities and risks.

Whether the proposed IMA and BAL become firmly established and useful processes within CBP remains to be seen. According to the strategic plan, the analysis and assessment process will allow the agency to evaluate whether the Border Patrol’s “capability [is] commensurate with the threat.” It is unclear, however, how the Border Patrol is defining and evaluating the threats against which its capacities are deployed.

Evolving Strategy: Numbers and Threats

Rather than clarifying the border security strategy, the 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan highlights the difficulty that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has had in defining what the newest federal bureaucracy means by “border security.” The new strategy sheds little light on what it will cost the nation to “secure the border” and how threats to border security are assessed and prioritized.

Although the Border Patrol dates back to 1924, it wasn’t until 70 years later that the agency issued its first national strategy. The Border Patrol’s first national strategy, released in 1994, came in response to rising illegal immigration flows through the border’s main urban corridors, mainly north from Juárez and Tijuana. The 1994 so-called “prevention through deterrence” strategy called for blocking the most frequented immigration corridors with concentrated deployments of Border Patrol agents and the targeted buildup of new what is known as “tactical infrastructure” such as border walls, stadium lighting and other barriers. As a result, illegal immigration flows would be diverted, it was argued, to more remote and difficult-to-traverse stretches of the border, thereby creating an effective disincentive for would-be immigrants.

The central objective of the operations established in accordance with the first strategic plan – an objective which was only partially successful – was to diminish illegal border crossings. As intended, illegal crossings through the targeted sections of the border did decline, in some areas dramatically. But new major south-north immigration corridors emerged, confounding the Border Patrol strategists. As a result, the Border Patrol was pressed to quickly extend its prevention through deterrence tactics to other regions of the largely rural areas of the border which had previously seen only trickles of illegal immigration. Another consequence of the 1994 deterrence strategy was the dramatic increase in horrific deaths as immigrants seeking to enter the United States illegally attempted to cross through harsh border landscapes and raging rivers.

Following the 1994 strategic plan, the Border Patrol shifted to threat-centered strategies. There is no reference to the prevention through deterrence concept in the latest strategy statements, yet these deterrence tactics continue to guide Border Patrol operations.

The National Border Patrol Strategy of 2004, which came a year after the Border Patrol was folded into the DHS, marked the transition from a border control to a border security framework. While the priority of the Border Patrol stayed the same – “to establish and maintain operational control over our Nation’s borders” – the focus of that control expanded to include terrorists and terrorist weapons, in addition to illegal immigrants. This new counterterrorism mission tapped military terminology – such as “operational control,” “defense-in-depth,” and “situational awareness” – to describe the agency’s new strategic operations.

In introducing the first post-9/11 strategy, then-CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner in 2004 tied border control goals to the Bush administration’s war against terrorism, stating, “This goal is vital to national security.”

Adopting military jargon, the Border Patrol in 2004 set forth the strategic concept of operational control of the border. The degree to which the Border Patrol achieved operational control would be the metric by which the progress in ensuring border security would be measured.

Escalating pressure of illegal immigration flows gave rise to the Border Patrol’s first national strategy, while the perceived new threat environment after 9/11 sparked the formulation of the second strategy in 2004. In contrast, the Border Patrol has offered no convincing rationale for formulating its newest national strategy.

What likely precipitated the rather haphazard development of the new strategy was not any change in what the Border Patrol calls the “threat environment” or the change in the numbers of apprehension and seizures. Instead, a political uproar associated with the performance measures associated with the 2004 report sparked the hurried production of the new strategic plan.

DHS and other Bush administration officials began referring to the Border Patrol strategy of instituting operational control over the border, particularly as part of the 2005 DHS initiative called the Secure Border Initiative (SBI). In 2006, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the range of SBI programs, including the new border fence and the virtual fence, would result in “operational control” of the Southwest border by the end of 2010.

Pressed to show its rate of progress in securing the border, DHS and the Border Patrol in 2004 established a border-security schematic designed to document the varying degrees of security – descending from “effective” or full “operational control” to “managed” control, “monitored,” “low-level monitored,” and “remote/low activity.” The Border Patrol based the ranking mostly on the degree of presence of personnel, infrastructure and technological surveillance, although the subjective evaluations of Border Patrol officials in each sector were also factored in.

When the Border Patrol began releasing its estimates of the degree of operational control in early 2010, the figures unleashed a firestorm of criticism by border security proponents. Only 13 percent of the 8,067 miles under Border Patrol jurisdiction were categorized as being under full or effective operational control. Along the Southwest border, only 44 percent of the nearly 2,000 miles were ranked as being under “effective” or “managed control.” Along the Northern border, just 2 percent was under operational control by 2010.

Border security hawks lambasted the Border Patrol for its failure to achieve operational control of large stretches of the Southwestern border and almost the entire Northern border. In turn, they escalated their demands for more fencing, more drones, more agents, more remote ground surveillance and more National Guard on the border.

The Border Patrol countered that the areas that were not under operational control were generally rugged, infrequently crossed sections of the border. While these areas did not meet the high standard of operational control – including fencing, high concentration of agents and an array of electronic surveillance – they were constantly monitored, explained the Border Patrol.

It should be noted that the 2004 strategic plan did qualify and limit what the Border Patrol meant by operational control in the 2004 strategy statement defining it as “the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential or other national security objectives.” What is more, the Border Patrol acknowledged that operational control “may be limited to specific smuggling corridors or other geographically defined areas” – seemingly contradicting the grand ambition of operational control over the nation’s borders.

The Border Patrol, finding itself in a rhetorical trap of its own making, had dropped all references to “operational” or “effective” control by the end of fiscal year 2010. The concept of operational control is nowhere to be found in the 2012-2016 strategic plan. Nor is there any official explanation by DHS, CBP or the Border Patrol as to why this strategic framework was all but erased from official discourse.

Consternation and Skepticism About Border Security Strategy

Consternation and skepticism have been among the main reactions to the Border Patrol’s new border security strategy. The Border Patrol’s failure to define what was really new about the strategy, the plan’s lack of details and the absence of any metrics to measure the agency’s progress underscored existing concerns about the Border Patrol’s fuzzy strategic focus and lack of accountability.

Since 2010, the Border Patrol has been promising to set forth new quantitative and qualitative measures of its border security operations. Yet the new strategy included no performance measures whatsoever.

Rep. Candice Miller, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, opened a May 8, 2012, hearing on border security strategy by pointedly noting, “The 2012 to 2016 strategy lacks a tangible way to measure our efforts on the border.”

Echoing Miller, Rebecca Gambler, who directs the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Homeland Security and Justice office, told the subcommittee: “What’s really important and really key going forward is for the Border Patrol and the department [DHS] to move more toward outcome-oriented measures that would allow the department, the Congress and the public to really get a sense of how effective the Border Patrol’s efforts are.”

The Border Patrol’s problems were not limited to concerns about the lack of metrics to evaluate the success of its strategy and border security operations. During the hearing, Fisher had repeated difficulty in explaining the strategic thrust of the new plan.

After Fisher finished presenting the strategy, Miller quizzically paged through the document while expressing her bewilderment:

What is really new in the strategic plan?” she asked Fisher. “I’m looking at it and everything here. I mean, I agree with everything that’s here. But there wasn’t really something that grabbed me as being really new. Is there anything really new in there that you would highlight as a marquee component of this new plan?”

Responding, Fisher said: “I’ll give you two quick examples: Change-detection capability and the other one talks about optimizing capability.” By change-detection capability, Fisher explained that it was referring to the Border Patrol’s new high-tech surveillance operations – both in the air through drones or unmanned aerial systems, and on the ground by way of the evolving virtual fence project.

In an attempt to explain how these examples related to the “risk-based, intelligence-driven” attributes of the new strategy, Fisher added that the new “change-detection capability” of drones allows Border Patrol “to go out and fly sorties along the border, to confirm or deny any changes in that threat environment.” Elaborating, Fisher continued, “So that allows us to use technology to be able to understand where those threats are going to be evolving.” He later notes, “I don’t think that we are maximizing to the extent that we need to all of those capabilities, which is a common theme within our strategy now.”

Following up on Miller’s question, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she had “one straightforward question” for Fisher: “What do you think is the most important element of that strategy?” Fisher had a one-sentence response: “It’s the focus of – there is a common theme within that strategy that I certainly see as identifying and developing and training future leaders of this organization.”

Missing Performance Measures and Metrics

Since 2010, the Border Patrol has been in a near-desperate search for metrics that will measure its success in controlling the border. After the “operational control” schematic for border security was summarily dropped, DHS promised that it was developing a new, more inclusive framework for measuring border security to be called the Border Conditions Index (BCI).

In addition to the usual numerical indicators of apprehensions of illegal border crossers and seizures of illegal drugs, the promised performance index would include statistics about public safety in the borderland, as well as statistics directly related to Border Patrol operations. Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on May 3, 2011, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that the BCI would “comprehensively measure security along the Southwestern border and the quality of life in the region.”

As described, the BCI would include measures of borderland life such as property values, unemployment rates and crime statistics. Introducing nontraditional and more varied performance measures would likely underscore the DHS’s messaging that the border is safer, more secure and better protected than ever before.

Crime levels, traditionally lower on the border than elsewhere in the nation, particularly in urban areas, have decreased in the borderlands despite rising population levels. By supporting its assertions about its border security achievement, the proposed index would have allowed the Border Patrol to point to unprecedented levels of cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement officers – a product not only of the higher per capita presence of federal agents, but also of a bounty of border security funding directed to state and local police and sheriff’s deputies. Nowhere else in the nation is there such a pervasive presence of drug task forces.

The proposed BCI has apparently been dropped. One obvious problem was that the index would have been almost completely disconnected from both the security-centered framework of post-9/11 CBP strategies and the new emphasis on “risk-based strategy, intelligence-driven” operations. Another probable reason for the disappearance of BCI is that it would have likely generated criticism by border security hardliners that the DHS measures of borderland life incorporate less tangible factors such as the purported rise of fear of spillover violence and types of crime not included in crime indices, such as vandalism by illegal border-crossers.

The Border Patrol is facing increasing pressure to set forth new measures by which its strategic goals and operational objectives can be evaluated. At the May 8 hearing, titled “Measuring Border Security,” Rep. Miller asked Fisher: “When we hear terms like ‘the border is more secure than ever,’ that may be so, but how do you measure it?” The GAO testimony at the hearing underscored this concern about the lack of metrics to evaluate Border Patrol spending, concluding in its statement about border security measures: DHS has “reduced information provided to Congress and the public about program results.”

Having apparently ditched “border conditions” as a set of metrics to gauge its border security achievements, the Border Patrol promises to issue its new performance measures in early 2013. Meanwhile, it has issued a new strategic plan that doubles down on its 2004 focus on threats and risks, while also putting new stress on how its risk-based operations will be intelligence-driven. Presumably, any new set of performance measures will necessarily provide a verifiable and quantitative set of indicators of the progress it is making on identifying risks, assessing threats and targeting these dangers in the borderlands the agency patrols and protects. Lacking new performance measures, the Border Patrol has reverted to what it calls an “interim metric” of border control, namely the number of illegal border-crossers apprehended by the agency.

In its new strategic plan, the Border Patrol did include a couple of new initiatives to achieve border security. It is committed to a “whole-of-government” approach, and to “community engagement.” It is likely that if new performance measures are issued to accompany the new strategic plan, they will include metrics that point to the increasing ways that the Border Patrol is working with other governmental agencies – federal, state, local and tribal – in its border security operations, and to how it is becoming newly engaged with border communities themselves.

Fisher told the hearing that the Border Patrol is shifting from community relations to community engagement, explaining how the Border Patrol is increasingly reaching out to borderland residents and leaders as the agency’s eyes and ears. The Border Patrol is training every agent to “recognize that every individual that they encounter is a potential source of information.”

Without careful consideration, this represents a potentially dangerous new intrusion of the federal government into civil society. As is, the principal targets of border security programs are immigrants (few of whom constitute security threats) and the illegal drug market (virtually all marijuana between points of entry where Border Patrol operates). Lacking credible risk-based guidelines for community engagement, the Border Patrol’s new determination to, as it says, “partner” with borderland “stakeholders” will do nothing to increase homeland security and will instead empower vigilante anti-immigrant activism and a culture of snitches.

Strategy Without Definition, Focus or Measurable Objectives

“The Strategic Plan sets a firm foundation for the continued evolution of the Border Patrol as an integral part of CBP’s overall border management and homeland security enterprise,” said Aguilar. The Border Patrol’s new plan states that its strategy and operations will be “risk-based” and “intelligence-driven.” Yet, it does not include a methodology for assessing risks or for leveraging intelligence to meet identified threats to homeland security. Nor does the Border Patrol explain – either in the new strategy or elsewhere – how risk-management will determine the directional focus and budgetary specifics of border funding.

The 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan is not a serious document. The plan includes repeated references to vague tactics such as rapid response, intelligence, community engagement, whole-of-government approaches and intergovernmental integration. Full of platitudes, patriotisms, military jargon and abstractions, the strategy statement is essentially a public-relations document.

The “firm foundation” that Aguilar sees is manifestly flimsy and unprofessional. The Strategic Plan has no real plan, no timelines, no summary of the evolving geopolitical context for border control, no strategic focus and no baselines or metrics to measure the Border Patrol’s progress in securing the border.

This article is largely excerpted from a new international policy report, The Border Patrol’s Strategic Muddle, published by the Center for International Policy.

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