by Suzanne Kelly
If there was one thing nearly everyone in the House subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security hearing room agreed on Tuesday, it was the enormity of the challenge facing U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher then rolled out his new border security policy, a policy that hasn't undergone a significant update since 2004. It shifts the focus from efforts to patrol the 8,600 miles of border surrounding the country to identifying the areas of greatest risk and devoting resources there.
"The Border Patrol's strategic plan marks an important point in the growth and development of the U.S. Border Patrol and establishes an approach that is tailored to meet the challenges of securing a 21st century border against a variety of dynamic threats and dangerous adversaries," said Fisher, who says the threat along the border is constantly evolving.
Fisher was joined at the witness table by Rebecca Gambler from the Government Accountability Office and Marc Rosenblum, a specialist on immigration issues.
If there were another thing everyone agreed on, it was that securing the border, which includes the rugged warzone-like conditions in parts of the Southwest to the vast expanses of land along the northern border, is nothing short of a work in progress.
The announcement of the new border strategy comes just days after 23 bodies were discovered in the Mexican border town on Nuevo Laredo. Many of the bodies had been decapitated, and some were hung from a bridge. An unnamed military official told CNN that they thought the killings were likely related to an organized crime group.
Drug-related crimes and criminal organizations operating along the border are one challenge. Another is the possibility of a terrorist slipping into the country, the worse case scenario being that they bring a weapon of mass destruction with them.
Fisher remains convinced that focusing assets on the areas where that is most likely to happen makes far more sense that devoting resources to the areas that are extremely difficult for anyone to navigate. And he's relying on a stronger emphasis on information gathering and intelligence sharing to help pinpoint just where to deploy his department's vast resources.
"Ultimately, leveraging all available actions, programs and techniques encompassed within our strategic plan will strengthen the Border Patrol internally, increase capabilities and our operations and enhance border security and ultimately national security through the use of information, integration and rapid response."
But there are concerns about the new strategy, namely how to measure its effectiveness.
"The department last reported its progress and status in achieving operation control of the borders in fiscal year 2010," Gambler told the committee. "At that time, the department reported achieving operational control for about 1,100 miles or 13% of more than 8,600 miles across U.S. northern, southwest and coastal borders. On the southwest border specifically, the Border Patrol reported achieving operational control of 873 miles, or 44% of the nearly 2,000 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico."
If the idea is to measure the border in miles, that's a number that can be documented. But if the goal is to focus resources in particular areas alone, how do you know whether you've missed anything? Such is the argument over border security, and Fisher agrees that goals and measurement strategies are still being worked out, something Gambler says must be a priority.
"What's really important and really key going forward is for the Border Patrol and the department 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," Gambler said.
The Border Patrol has nine unmanned aerial surveillance systems, better known as drones, in its fleet, and it is expected to take delivery of a 10th this year.
It also relies on a series of foot sensors, fencing and horseback patrols along parts of the border, and an aerial surveillance fleet that includes a Blackhawk helicopter to offer situational awareness in those areas that are less hospitable to patrol on foot, horseback, or ATV.
Still, Fisher argues that the Border Patrol's most effective tool to date has been the 23,000 agents who still take the lead in directing use of the department's resources. But with a border patrol team that has literally doubled in size in the years since 9/11, there are concerns about the level of overall experience, and the department's ability to not only supervise the work of new agents, but to be on guard for signs of corruption, as well.
"Our 2012-16 strategic plan involves a set of objectives, strategies, programs and initiatives that apply information, integration and rapid response to develop and deploy new and better tactics, techniques and procedures to achieve our strategic objectives," Fisher told the committee. "The principle theme of our strategy is to use information, integration and rapid response to meet all threats."
The bottom line to the country's approach to securing the border came perhaps as Fisher compared finding a significant threat along the border to finding a needle in a haystack. Sometimes it's easier to narrow down the search if you can make the haystack smaller. At least that's the plan.