Able Sentry

The Coast Guard helps prevent a mass migration from Haiti.

In early February, Haitian rebels began threatening the government of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On Feb. 21, as the unrest spread, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge went to the White House with a plan to prevent what officials feared most: a wave of Haitian emigrants sailing for U.S. shores.

The ink was still wet on Ridge's plan, finished at 5:19 that morning by department officials in Miami who pulled an all-nighter. It called for an armada of Coast Guard cutters, Border Patrol helicopters, and aircraft from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to patrol the coast of Haiti for boats full of emigrants. They would be stopped and repatriated to Haiti.

The plan worked, even as Aristide's government collapsed. With round-the-clock patrols and repeated calls for Haitians to stay put-a message emphasized by President Bush, among others-a mass migration never materialized. Homeland Security repatriated all 905 Haitians who had set sail for Florida as of March 11.

In the public imagination, the effort was largely a Coast Guard operation. The service provided most of the resources, enlisting 15 cutters and 1,550 personnel, and did the physical work of returning Haitians to their country. But Ridge's plan, known as Operation Able Sentry, called for five other DHS agencies to pony up personnel. Seven Florida law enforcement agencies also participated. To coordinate them, DHS unveiled a command structure that officials see as a model for managing future homeland security events.

The Haitian operation was run by Homeland Security Task Force Southeast, which counts members from all DHS agencies in Florida. Established by Ridge last June, the task force quickly realized that every agency entering the new department had its own procedures for responding to migration incidents. After months of work, officials merged these plans into a 3-inch-thick document that became the playbook for the Haitian crisis.

To lead the task force, Ridge's office tapped Coast Guard Rear Adm. Harvey Johnson, and named the Border Patrol's Lynne Underdown as his deputy. Both have day jobs: Johnson runs Coast Guard operations for District 7, which covers the Caribbean, while Underdown heads Border Patrol efforts in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. But as task force leaders, they answered to Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, giving Ridge a direct line to officials in the field. "Within three minutes of the first Haitian being repatriated, they knew about it in Washington," says Johnson.

Once the task force got up and running, Underdown asked DHS agency chiefs in Miami to ante up the resources called for in their migration plan. In quick succession, she had access to 12 aircraft from ICE, planning specialists from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and public affairs officials from the Transportation Security Administration. ICE detention and removal officials readied plans in case Haitians made it to U.S. shores, while the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) put 17 asylum pre-screening officers on Coast Guard cutters, to determine whether any Haitians qualified for asylum.

These assets essentially belonged to the task force for the duration of the incident; Johnson and Underdown could deploy them as they saw fit. But they were careful to keep DHS agency chiefs in the loop. "We weren't giving orders to their people without coordinating through them," says Underdown. "The task force [chain of] command was parallel to the normal agency chain of command."

Johnson's staff drew up a joint patrol schedule for DHS and Florida agency aircraft to take turns patrolling key areas. "The Border Patrol would say we can patrol an area off West Palm Beach from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; then the Florida Wildlife Commission would do it until midnight, and ICE would take it after that," says Underdown.

Closer to Haiti, Coast Guard cutters were continually reacting to events in Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital. On a single day, Johnson says the service nabbed about 500 emigrants, who took to the seas at Aristide's urging, they believe. "It was very dynamic whether Aristide would come or go," says Johnson. "It was not unusual for us to get real-time intelligence out of that theater every 15 minutes," adds Underdown.

On Feb. 25, the task force scrambled to intercept the Margot, a Panamanian-registered freighter that had issued a distress call just 10 miles off the Florida coast. Teams from ICE, the FBI and the Coast Guard descended on the vessel, finding 17 Haitians and some weapons on board.

Because the Haitian emigrants were intercepted at sea, the task force never resorted to contingency plans for processing and returning Haitians who made landfall in the United States. On March 11, Ridge directed the task force to cease its Haitian operations, although the Coast Guard continues to watch for signs of a migration should security in that country worsen.

In Washington, officials view the Haitian task force as a model for how the department should manage joint operations in the field. Later this year, the department plans to create regional offices in an effort to unify the field structure of its 22 agencies. At a March 24 hearing of two House Government Reform subcommittees, Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security's undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, cited the Haitian task force as an example of the role these offices will play. Regional directors will manage temporary events and will be Ridge's direct liaisons on certain occasions, but they will not oversee daily operations. "The day-to-day operational control would still be through the traditional agencies," Hutchinson said after the hearing.

For Homeland Security officials in the field, Operation Able Sentry was largely a success. Underdown tells a story of four Cuban emigrants who were intercepted outside New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi river. The emigrants wanted to sail for Miami, but the smuggler they paid declined. "He said DHS was all over Miami, so he took them all the way up to the Mississippi river instead," says Underdown.

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