Chertoff warned of problems with separate border security agencies

Inspector general backed merger of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection bureaus, but Homeland Security secretary rejected recommendation.

Before announcing his decision not to merge two border security agencies under his control, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was warned that his choice was "likely to aggravate, rather than remedy, the difficulties" the two agencies were experiencing, according to a draft of a report obtained by Government Executive.

DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner told Chertoff that preserving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection bureaus "would likely. . . exacerbate operational and informational stovepipes that are now only emerging," the document said, including creating "new intelligence stovepipes," which could have "significant national security implications."

"As we were drafting this report, [Skinner] met with the secretary and deputy secretary and discussed our findings," the document stated. "On June 27, 2005, a rough preliminary draft of this report was provided to the secretary." The document stated that Skinner's belief that the United States would be better served by a unified border security operation has not changed since then.

Chertoff's decision, announced July 13, not to merge ICE and CBP, but to place them under Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson's direction, "is contrary to our recommendation," the document said, "but clearly within his purview."

The report, stamped "For Official Use Only," has not been publicly released. A spokeswoman for the inspector general declined to confirm the authenticity of the document, although she said her office was aware that "there is a copy out there of a draft report." The office planned to make a version of the report public in the next couple of weeks, she said. "Until that time we can't comment."

DHS spokesman Jerrod Agen declined to comment on why Chertoff and Jackson apparently did not concur with Skinner's recommendations. "In the final report, we would offer an official response" to the IG's findings, he said.

ICE and CBP were established in 2003 in connection with the creation of the Homeland Security Department. They include various divisions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Customs Service, and other offices, most of which were involved in border security issues.

ICE, Homeland Security's largest law enforcement body, has an investigative "interior enforcement" mission, probing cases of people, drugs and other goods smuggled across U.S. borders. CBP has an inspection role, examining goods, people and vehicles when they cross the border.

A deep divide has opened between the two organizations, Skinner's staff found, that has in some cases weakened DHS' ability to secure borders. "The current organizational structure has fostered counterproductive divisions in the customs and immigration enforcement processes," the report stated. "[W]e were informed of serious incidents in which CBP and ICE coordination had broken down to the point of jeopardizing border security and officer safety."

A CBP spokesperson declined comment for this article, referring a reporter's questions to the Homeland Security Department's press office.

Since 2003, narcotics convictions from ICE investigations have fallen by more than half, and seizures are down nearly 25 percent, according to the report. Those statistics, "combined with the volume of testimonial evidence, suggest that degradation of border enforcement operations has occurred, in part, due to the ineffective coordination between CBP and ICE."

ICE spokesman Dean Boyd was familiar with the report, although he was not permitted to comment on its specifics. He did cite internal department statistics that appeared to contradict the IG's findings.

"In fiscal year 2004, ICE and CBP together were involved in the seizure of more than 3.1 million pounds of drugs," Boyd said. "That's a 63 percent increase over 2003, when [together] they were involved in seizures of 1.9 million pounds of illegal drugs."

Skinner's staff saw breakdowns in how the two organizations apprehended and prosecuted illegal immigrants, investigated crimes, and gathered and analyzed intelligence on smuggling activities.

"Shortfalls in operational coordination and information sharing have fostered an environment of uncertainty and mistrust between CBP and ICE personnel," Skinner's office found. "We detected a pronounced 'us versus them' attitude among the staffs at the locations we visited. . . . [W]e have been told of competition and, sometimes, interference."

Investigations Compromised

In the course of an alien smuggling investigation, a joint ICE-Border Patrol team went to the hotel room of suspected smugglers and knocked on the door. According to the report: "[N]o one answered, but team members could hear people inside. The ICE investigator told the Border Patrol agents that the team would have to get a search warrant. . . . The Border Patrol agents stated they were under a different chain of command and did not have to obey the investigator's instructions."

The Border Patrol agents had the hotel manager unlock the door. "Inside they discovered smuggled aliens," the report said, "but the case was never prosecuted because the evidence was not admissible."

The report included a range of allegations by CBP and ICE officials: "Many CBP employees report that ICE no longer accepts as many case referrals from CBP inspectors and Border Patrol agents," who have historically fed cases to ICE agents, read one charge. The report also noted, "Many ICE investigators reported that investigative coordination between CBP and ICE is also declining because CBP increasingly refers cases to other investigative agencies."

ICE's Boyd cited statistics that rebutted the IG's report. "The total number of referrals has increased under the current organizational structure," he said, "from 10,542 referrals made by CBP to ICE in fiscal 2003 to 11,326 referrals in fiscal 2004."

The rift is causing serious problems, the draft report noted. CBP no longer honors "routine requests for assistance," according to ICE investigators cited in the document. CBP also requires ICE investigators to have a CBP escort when visiting certain ports of entry, even though the same investigators had previously enjoyed "unrestricted access" to the same facilities, according to the report.

Not Connecting the Dots

Despite the similarity of their missions--in many cases CBP and ICE agents target the same types of criminals--the two agencies have separate intelligence structures, which produce separate reports, and generally do not share those products with each other, the IG found. "The current organizational structure has created new intelligence stovepipes that could have significant national security implications," the document stated.

"Rather than working more closely together. . . CBP and ICE field intelligence operations are drifting apart," the report concluded.

To store and share information, the two agencies use an outdated computer database that is not designed for intelligence work, the IG found. The system's outmoded classification measures shield information from many CBP employees who do not have the clearance to request it.

The report compared the two agencies' technology to that of the FBI's, which made it difficult for agents to find a memo from the bureau's Phoenix office warning about students at flight schools that, some speculate, could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks: "Just as in the FBI's case, CBP's and ICE's overreliance on [an ineffective database] could similarly result in 'lost' intelligence or the inability of intelligence analysts to 'connect the dots.' "

Catch and Release

The IG report also detailed how illegal immigrants detained by CBP were often released by ICE, which runs DHS' detention facilities, because the agency does not have space to hold them.

The report said CBP's increased efforts to intercept aliens were not coordinated with ICE's detention and removal operations. Due to a combination of hiring freezes and regulatory restrictions, ICE's detention operations lost 10 percent of their bed space and 2 percent of their staff in the past couple of years, according to the report.

Meanwhile, CBP has apprehended more illegal aliens. In particular, detentions of people from countries other than Mexico have increased from slightly less than 50,000 in 2003 to more than 75,000 in 2004, and have continued to skyrocket in 2005.

The result has been "the release of increased numbers of apprehended aliens into the community," the report stated. Border Patrol officers are frustrated that ICE releases people from "special interest" countries--a term for nations that "present a potential terrorist threat to national security." The report estimated that ICE releases one in every five aliens from special interest countries that were apprehended by the Border Patrol.

"Without the support of increased transportation, detention space, and detention and removal staff, increases in apprehensions make little sense," the report concluded.

Again, Boyd cited numbers to rebut the IG's claims. "Under the current organizational structure, ICE has apprehended and removed more illegal aliens than at any other time in history," he said. "In 2004, ICE removed 162,000 illegal aliens from the country, including about 85,000 criminal aliens. Two years before that, under the INS, there were only 116,000 illegal aliens removed from the country."

Earlier this year, Skinner's office began a thorough assessment of ICE and CBP at the request of Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which resulted in the draft report.

Separation Anxiety

According to the report, at the time the Homeland Security Department was created, "senior managers and experts" on the teams advising the White House on the transition to the new department unanimously endorsed a unified border security operation, and specifically argued against creating separate divisions such as ICE and CBP. "All of the members of the transition team associated with border security advocated keeping the investigative and inspection functions unified," the report said.

"Splitting them would be unwise and not recommended," one adviser wrote at the time. Such a division would "create new stovepipes. . . where none currently exist," wrote another. "[S]uch a split would fragment responsibility and accountability for border enforcement," wrote a third, the IG reported.

In fact, Skinner's investigators could not determine why ICE, in particular, was created the way it was. "We could not find any documentation that fully explains the rationale and purpose underlying ICE's composition," the report stated, "Nor could anyone whom we interviewed provide a complete explanation of the thinking behind ICE's structure." Most ICE and CBP officials confessed to "still being puzzled" over the decision-making concerning ICE's structure.