A Homeland Security Department watchdog says that immigration and border enforcement agencies have been running protection details for executives without the legal authority to do so.
The DHS Office of the Inspector General issued a report Sept. 14, which was redacted and made public this week, making the case that Customs and Border Protection and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement lacked the statutory authority to provide security details to agency leaders. But CBP has provided protection for its commissioner, and ICE for its director, since as early as 2014, without articulating specific or credible threats that made such efforts necessary.
According to CBP, the protection detail for its commissioner costs $700,000 per year in personnel costs, and the agency has incurred additional costs to acquire multiple SUVs to support the program. The DHS inspector general said those figures underestimate the price tag.
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“We believe that both ICE and CBP do not capture the full costs of their protection details in their estimates,” the report said. “For example, according to the [Office of Management and Budget]-approved DHS cost model for calendar year 2016, the fully-burdened annual cost of a GS-13 (step 1) law enforcement agent in the D.C. area is about $275,000. Given . . . other costs not included, such as travel and vehicles, we believe the true annual cost of each detail could exceed $1 million.”
The inspector general office, which initiated its investigation following whistleblower complaints, said that Congress has through legislation given a number of federal law enforcement agencies the authority to provide protection details for their leadership, but that is not the case for ICE or CBP.
“In contrast to ICE and CBP, other law enforcement agencies rely on express statutory language for their authorizations,” the report said. “Given that Congress has clearly provided for security details for some positions and not others, we do not believe that these general provisions authorize permanent security details comprised of special agents and a fleet of vehicles for the leadership of ICE or CBP in the absence of a showing of specific, credible threats to these executives.”
The inspector general concluded that the agencies’ justifications for the extra security were based on a general idea that their missions are controversial, rather than threats to executives' lives.
“ICE executives explained that the existence of the detail is predicated not on any specific or credible threat to the director,” the inspector general wrote. “Rather, it is based on the general nature of the position coupled with ICE’s involvement in ‘hot button’ topics like immigration enforcement and removal.”
The agency watchdog argued that these security details may be counterproductive, making these executives more of a target by raising their public profile.
“In fact, we found the security detail has actually served to draw public attention to the previous ICE director,” the report said. “One field agent who worked on the ICE executive detail in Texas said in his view, ‘you could put [the director] in a photo line-up and show it to 100 people in downtown Dallas and maybe two might recognize her.’ A number of agents stated that this same previous ICE director was never recognized in public, but that the detail attracted attention.”
Some agents told investigators that they felt the protection details were more an issue of convenience for executives, rather than to ensure their safety. "Nights, weekends, we have to send agents out," one agent told OIG. "We’re just treated like we are expendable.”
Another agent said there was “absolutely no protection at times . . . then [she would require] rides to the airport.”
The report recommended that CBP and ICE discontinue their security details for agency leadership until a legal review of the programs can take place. While DHS agreed to conduct a review of the agencies’ security details, it declined to shut down the programs until the probe is complete.
“While the department will review further the CBP commissioner’s and ICE director’s security details, DHS believes that a reasonable basis exists to maintain the status quo during the review of these security details,” DHS said. “It is important to note that the very nature of both the CBP and ICE positions subject them to intense attention and hostility, and increases the likelihood that they may be the subjects of attack while performing their official duties at any number of events or publicly known government offices.”
The inspector general also recommended that if DHS’ review determines the agencies do have the legal authority for the security details, then the department should issue a directive on “the scope and circumstances under which a security detail” is allowed for its leaders, including reporting requirements on travel and costs.
Department officials said they will issue regulations governing how security details are approved by June 20, 2018, but the IG office said that effort is not sufficient.
“DHS has not articulated the reasons a fairly simple policy should take a year to issue, particularly given the fact that the department has been aware of the issue since at least November of 2016,” the report said.