FORT BLISS, Texas – While concern over the large influx of illegal immigrants is driving the Bush administration’s renewed interest in securing the southern border, Army Col. Paul Disney is quick to point out that the ordinary migrant hopping over a fence in search of economic opportunity is not considered a “transnational threat.”
International terrorism, narcotics trafficking, weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, and organized crime, meet the definition. However, common smuggling methods can be used as conveyances for terrorists, said Disney, director of operations for Joint Task Force North, which has facilitated the deployment of active duty and guard units on the southern and northern borders for two decades.
JTF North had its origins in the beginning of the so-called war on drugs in the late 1980s. Its goal is to support law enforcement agencies to deter transnational threats to the homeland. Since its inception, it has completed more than 5,800 missions in support of the agencies such as the Border Patrol.
“No one agency given the enormity of our borders really can handle the problem set by themselves,” Disney added.
Nevertheless, JTF North’s engineering and surveillance projects have contributed to hardening the border. And halting “alien smuggling organizations” is among its stated goals. It provides a model for the kinds of projects the National Guard will be expected to undertake as the Bush administration implements its controversial plan to strengthen the southern frontier, officials said.
One such project can be found in the arid hills an hour’s drive east of San Diego where active duty Marine engineers teamed with a Maryland National Guard unit to build an access road.
The Border Patrol has an acute need for better roads in the rough, hilly terrain found along the California border. Wider, smoother all-weather roads mean safer, easier access and less time traveling in search of illegal aliens or smugglers. When the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or other agencies identify a problem the military may be able to help them solve, they let the National Guard Bureau have first crack at coming up with a solution. If they pass on the project, JTF North is given the opportunity to search for volunteer units to take on the mission if it’s deemed important to national security, requires the unique capability of the military and can serve the dual purpose of providing training.
It then searches for active duty, National Guard or reservists, to volunteer.
Even if the bureau passes on a project, states often volunteer their guard units for duty. Their motivation is a chance to train in environments not available in their home states. Active duty units see the opportunity to keep their personnel sharp, especially as they prepare to deploy overseas. Defense Department counter-drug funding pays for many of the projects, with other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Defense paying for materials for engineering projects.
“I’ve been trying to break a rock every day for two weeks, and it’s still there,” said Sgt. Kris Clampitt, of the 371st Marine Wing Support Squadron based at Marine Corps Air Base, Yuma, Ariz.
While the bolder that is buried in the middle of the road frustrates the project leader, it’s that kind of obstacle he and his Marines won’t encounter if they stay on their base and carry out their training by tearing up roads and repaving them again. “This is the hardest project I’ve ever worked on,” he adds. The 371st will be deploying to Iraq at the beginning of 2007.
Up a steep hill, Master Sgt. Perry Clemons supervises a group of Marines as they install a culvert. He uses the opportunity to cross train the combat engineers on the machinery, including the backhoe and graders, and get them valuable “stick time.”
“They’re going to be running on the deck instead of crawling” when they get to Iraq, he said.
First Lt. Mark Taylor, company commander of the Baltimore, Md.-based National Guard unit, was also in California to gain experience. His soldiers supported the project by operating dump trucks.
“You don’t learn this in school. None of it,” he said. Like many of the guard units under President Bush’s border initiative, his combat engineers were there as part of their annual, two-week training commitment.
JTF North spokesman Armando Carrasco pointed out that many guard units were eager to take part in projects, particularly those in the flat, desert, found in Arizona and Texas. “They say, ‘This looks just like Iraq.’” Units from northern states with few opportunities to do real-world engineering or surveillance projects, sign up to receive the training. If the project is near Western Texas, they can also take advantage of Fort Bliss’ wide open spaces to do live-fire training, something that is difficult to arrange in their crowded home states.
Projects such as the one near San Diego take one to two years to plan. Environmental and archeological studies, for example, must be carried out, JTF North officials said. Meanwhile, the National Guard deployment will only last two years, administration officials have said.
Two Stryker brigade-sized squadrons have participated in two, 32-day surveillance missions in the El Paso, Texas and Tucson, Ariz. sectors to assist the Border Patrol in drug and alien interdiction. Each of the missions involved five military units, hundreds of active duty and National Guard soldiers. The First Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Lewis, Wash., had just received its Strykers last fall and had the opportunity to try them out in the western desert. The Strykers were primarily needed for their sensor suite, including the long-range advanced scout surveillance system and the thermal imager.
During the first mission from January to March 2005, shadow unmanned aerial vehicles flew from Fort Huachuca, Ariz., alongside the Army’s 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, but snags gaining clearance with the Federal Aviation Administration prevented their use during the second go-round, Disney said.
“It’s a great train-up opportunity, especially for those getting ready to deploy,” Carrasco said. The units also stopped at Fort Bliss’ gunnery ranges to carry out required live fire training.
The second operation detected 3,631 illegal migrants coming across the border, of which 60 percent were taken into custody by the Border Patrol, and netted 1,020 pounds of marijuana. Engineering units left behind one mile of lights and vehicle barriers in a previously vulnerable area.
Other JTF North projects on the southern border include aviation reconnaissance, manned and unmanned, tunnel detection and the training of Border Patrol agents in such fields as trauma management, weapons of mass destruction response and desert survival skills.
Navy engineers helped remove an old border fence that was extending into the ocean south of San Diego to make way for a new one. Part of their mission is to clear beaches for assaults. The Navy divers were able to practice their underwater skills requiring them to eliminate such barriers.
Like the guard forces that will be deployed along the border, JTF North does not take an active role in law enforcement activities. Under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, the military is prohibited from searches, seizures, detentions and arrests. Information collected in the course of surveillance is passed on to ICE, the Border Patrol or other agencies.
Disney stressed that unless international terrorism or drug trafficking is involved, there is no domestic surveillance.
“We know it’s a very sensitive topic of debate in the country today, so we do our utmost to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Disney said.
“They will be our eyes and ears, but they will not be our hands,” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said of the National Guard soldiers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
After President Bush went on television in May to declare his intention to dispatch 6,000 National Guard troops to the southern border, members of his administration quickly pointed out that the military has been supporting domestic operations there for 20 years.
Paul McHale, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for homeland defense, said the task force may be called to coordinate active duty forces that can provide unique capabilities on the border that the National Guard lacks.
JTF North declined to comment on its possible involvement in the border initiative, citing operational security concerns. “JTF North is prepared to respond to any requests for homeland security support submitted by federal law enforcement agencies,” Carrasco said.