Special Report

Walking Too Softly

More official cluelessness along our southwestern border.

By 5.5.11

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These days, when it comes to the U.S.-Mexico border, the only thing more alarming than the myriad security threats crossing over into the United States is our leadership's apparent cluelessness as to how serious a problem we face and what to do about it.

By way of example, the State Department recently put on a display of characteristic naïveté when it offered a new component to U.S.-Mexico counternarcotics cooperation efforts, known collectively as the Merida Initiative. Congressional Quarterly described the remarks by the State Department at a Woodrow Wilson Center forum this way:

The new facet of the [Merida] program seeks to create more "resilient communities" in northern Mexico and would consist of after-school projects, daycare services, and crime prevention workshops and other services, such as developing telephone hotlines for emergencies and tips…

At that same forum, a U.S. Agency for International Development official added:

"Community programming seeks to address the social and economic needs of communities in Mexico under threat by criminal organizations…. Together, these efforts address the impunity that feeds the spiral of criminality and violence, and helps the Mexican state address citizen needs to break this cycle."

It is at minimum ironic that USAID would acknowledge the "impunity that feeds the spiral of criminality and violence" while offering "community programming" as a solution. The impunity with which drug cartels, human smugglers, and terrorist networks are now operating at the border cannot seriously be ascribed to a lack of daycare centers in Mexico -- it is our own lack of resolve to treat this security threat as such that is enabling those elements to run rampant. And things only seem to be getting worse.

Consider some less-than-encouraging indicators:

Escalation. In March, the National Border Patrol Council, the U.S. Border Patrol union representing 17,500 non-supervisory Border Patrol agents, hotly disputed Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano's assessment that the border was "safer than ever" and "open for business." The Council's statement read in part:

It is time for the political games to stop for fear of insulting the government of Mexico.… U.S. citizens are being kidnapped and killed while our Border Patrol agents fight a war at home that no one will allow them to win.… Mexico is hemorrhaging violence, and we are being hit with the splatter.

This was against the backdrop of thirteen illegal aliens being apprehended a few days earlier in southern California, wearing U.S. Marine uniforms and traveling in a van with U.S. government plates. Although they were ultimately caught thanks to an alert Border Patrol agent who happened to be a former Marine, the fact that these smugglers had access to U.S. Marine uniforms and U.S. government plates speaks to the sophistication and elaborateness of these operations and should be cause for concern.

Around that same time, counterterrorism analyst Patrick Poole broke the news at Pajamas Media that Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, an applicant for asylum in the U.S. facing federal prosecution for lying to the FBI about his terrorism ties at the time of his application, had later admitted to running a smuggling ring from Brazil to transport Al-Shabaab Somali terrorists into the United States to wage jihad. As Poole and others have pointed out, this is just the latest revelation about the extent to which terrorist operatives have entered the United States -- including several who have crossed the southwest border acting on behalf of groups such as Al Shabaab, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

The increasing sophistication of smugglers combined with the terrorist ties of those being smuggled in should lend greater national security urgency to the state of affairs in the southwest border area. And yet the aforementioned National Border Patrol Council's excoriation of Napolitano came before the recent discovery of an improvised explosive device (IED) in Brownsville, Texas. Though the device turned out to be inactive, the Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator did not take it lightly, given that such devices are the calling-card of the ruthless Zetas cartel: 

"I think of a device that's intentionally manufactured to do harm to people such as we've seen in Mexico, Iran and Afghanistan…. We are all concerned about the implication of those kinds of devices given the violence we are seeing south of us."

Incidents such as these put a fine point on the startling assertion by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this year that Border Patrol has operational control of only 44% of the southern border.

Ineptness and Interference. While the dangers at the border are clearly escalating, the bureaucratic and policy apparatuses responsible for securing the area and keeping criminal and terrorist elements from using it to cross over are falling short.

CNS News broke a story last month that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was unable to account for the whereabouts of ten Libyan nationals previously in its custody. According to documents released by ICE, the agency had processed 27 Libyans in 2009 and 2010. The documents revealed that out of those 27 Libyans, ten were "booked in" or detained by ICE, then "booked out" or released -- but critically, neither the documents themselves nor representatives of ICE could account for what happened to these ten Libyans after they were released inside the United States. In response to repeated inquiries from CNS as to the whereabouts and case status of these Libyans, ICE stated that it had released all available information and that it had "nothing more to add on the matter."

Though we were not yet engaged militarily in Libya at the time that these individuals were caught by and detained by ICE, we are now learning that our intelligence agencies are detecting "flickers" of al Qaeda among anti-Qaddafi forces. And as others have pointed out, Libya is a leading country-of-origin for the oft-mentioned "foreign fighters" that have been attacking our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. That ICE not only lost track of these individuals but also does not see itself as obligated to provide answers as to what went wrong should raise troubling questions about how ICE manages the detention of those coming from hotbeds of global terrorism.

Equally disconcerting is the extent to which federal agencies responsible for land management at the border are preventing Border Patrol from effectively doing its job. The Departments of Interior and Agriculture's implementation of land use laws have resulted in Border Patrol being denied access to public lands along the border in a timely fashion, creating entire swaths of border area through which smugglers can pass virtually without intervention. As the GAO noted in its testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee last month:

"Border Patrol's access to some federal lands along the southwestern border has been limited because of certain land management laws, according to 17 of 26 patrol agents-in-charge that GAO surveyed…. Specifically, 14 Patrol agents-in-charge reported that they had been unable to obtain a permit or permission to access certain areas in a timely manner because of the time it takes for land managers to conduct required environmental and historic property assessments."

Testimony by one of the founding members of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBPO) put it this way:

"…the difficulties encountered by the Border Patrol to gain operational control are not the result of poor management or lack of resources. It is simply an issue of denied access. Unfortunately, our Country's willingness to accept these unwise restrictions has been aggravated in recent years by the unrelenting pressure of drug cartels and other international criminal enterprises."

No doubt that the men and women risking their lives as ICE agents and Border Patrol agents on the ground are serving with honor and doing everything within their power to keep the nation safe. Regrettably, however, their efforts have had to compete with bureaucratic inertia within and outside the Department of Homeland Security that is undermining their work and leaving us vulnerable to ever-increasing risks.

Real security efforts at the border will have to address the "hard power" shortcomings we are seeing in the face of determined and sophisticated cartels and terrorist organizations. If we turn to "soft power" without getting serious about detection and deterrence, we're not even bringing a knife to the gunfight.

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About the Author

Ben Lerner is Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.