The dream that a virtual fence on the U.S. southern border would spot every illegal migrant and drug smuggler appears to be officially dead.
The Border Patrol’s new strategic document, the first since 2004 when Congress and Bush administration officials first fell in love with the idea, indicates that the Department of Homeland Security agency will be standing pat with the hodgepodge of sensors, aerial platforms and communication systems that it acquired since gaining control of the southwest border became a political hot-button issue eight years ago.
The Border Patrol may come to Congress with a wish list sometime in the future, but only after it figures out how best to deploy and use the plethora of technologies it has already been given, said agency chief Michael Fisher.
“Are we utilizing them in the right combination?” he asked at a House Homeland Security Committee border and maritime security subcommittee hearing.
Arizona, as one case study, has forward-looking infrared radars affixed to helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground sensors as well as fixed and mobile towers.
Some of that infrastructure is left over from the approximately $1 billion spent on the failed virtual fence, which was once part of the SBInet program.
“That whole suite of capabilities is something that this organization over the past few years is just trying to figure out, how do you deploy that in the theater of operation? They are not deployed equally because they all have different capabilities,” Fisher said.
Some of the questions being asked are: How will the Border Patrol maximize the use of these leftover technologies? And how will it effectively transfer them to other sectors that see increases in illegal crossings?
The ability to redeploy personnel and technologies to certain areas when the agency sees an uptick in activity is one of the goals in the new strategy. It was in 2004 as well.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep.
Candice Miller, R-Mich., brought that up in the hearing.
“What is really new in this strategic plan?” she asked. “I agree with everything that’s here but it really wasn’t something that grabbed me as being really new.”
The plan is all about optimizing the capabilities that the Border Patrol has received over the past few years, Fisher replied. The employment of unmanned aerial vehicles was one example he gave. Synthetic aperture radar and sensors that can show subtle changes in soil where people may have passed by on the border can tip agents off to new patterns, he said. The agency can now reach into areas that were previously tough to access, he said.
The new technologies are good, but the agency will emphasize more basic intelligence gathering. “Community engagement” is the new buzzword. The Border Patrol has doubled its numbers to more than 21,000 officers over the past few years and they should be out among the border town residents speaking with them and looking for tips on suspicious behavior, he said.
“Every individual they encounter is a potential source of information,” he said.
“Unless we ask them, they won’t share it,” he added.
“The strategy is a broad framework of how we want the organization to start thinking,” Fisher told lawmakers.
Instead of new sensors, Fisher emphasized “cutting signs,” the age-old art of tracking interlopers by their footprints or other tell-tale signs that someone has passed by.
The chief said at an industry conference last fall that he wanted to get away from some of the terminology of the past. One example is “operational control of the border.”
Miller pushed back at this notion. She said she would introduce legislation that would enshrine this goal. Currently, the United States only has 13 percent of its borderlands under full operational control, said Rebecca Gambler, acting director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office.
How to measure the Border Patrol’s success continues to be a problem, she said. The 2004 strategy said the Border Patrol would come up with new metrics other than apprehension rates to determine how much illegal traffic the agency is stopping from entering the United States.
“How do you measure results from failure?” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, asked.
The Border Patrol will come up with new ways to measure its success at the beginning of next year, Fisher replied. Apprehensions are only a starting point to drill down into the statistics to understand recidivism rates, reapprehension in different locations and do the comparatives to get a better sense of what is happening on the border, he said.
“The performance goals and measures that will be used to provide oversight and accountability for the new strategic plan have not yet been established,” Gambler said in her testimony.