Customs, border employee training center earmark under fire

Senate and House lawmakers appear to be heading for a battle over funding to expand the size and role of a new training facility for Customs and Border Protection agents in West Virginia.

For the past two years, Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has put earmarks in the Homeland Security appropriations report for funding to expand the CBP Advanced Training Center near Harpers Ferry Historical Park in his home state.

Byrd added about $26 million in the fiscal 2006 spending bill and has put about $32 million in the Senate Appropriations Committee's version of the fiscal 2007 spending bill for construction to expand the center, which sits on about 104 acres of land, an aide to the senator confirmed.

The Bush administration has not requested any money to expand the center during the past two years, but has asked for funds to operate the center. The aide said Byrd originally secured funding in 2000 to create the center, but acknowledged that no competition was ever held to determine a site location for it. The center became operational last August.

But now at least one senior House Republican wants the expansion of the center stopped, saying it is not needed and is creating redundancies to training provided at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which is headquartered in Glynco, Ga., and operates four training centers across the country serving more than 80 federal agencies.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., whose district includes the Glynco headquarters, said in an interview he will work to remove funding for the Advanced Training Center expansion. "If it survived the Senate, we would work hard to get it killed in conference committee," said Kingston, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Kingston has been a staunch supporter of FLETC and said he is confident it can handle the training needs for CBP. "I don't see any need for this advanced training center," he said.

The aide to Byrd insisted the Advanced Training Center has a different mission from FLETC. Byrd agreed in 2000 to congressional language that prohibits the Advanced Training Center from duplicating training provided at FLETC, said the aide, adding that the language has been included in appropriation bills since then.

"We have been very, very sensitive to the issue of redundancy with FLETC," the aide said. In addition, the need for the Advanced Training Center has grown over the past two years with increased focus on border security, the aide said.

Indeed, by the end of fiscal 2007 the number of Border Patrol agents is expected to grow by another 2,000 to about 14,300. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a speech in Washington last week that the administration plans to have 18,000 Border Patrol agents by the end of 2008.

CBP also defends the need for the West Virginia facility. "There's nobody else that does what we do at the Advanced Training Center at Harpers Ferry," said Thomas Walters, CBP's assistant commissioner for the Office of Training and Development. "The heart of it is applied-use-of-force policy for Customs and Border Protection."

Walters said the center allows officers to move beyond basic training and practice re-enactments, rehearsals for upcoming operations and problem solving, as well as test new equipment. "Our officers are able to make mistakes in an environment that allows for those mistakes," he said.

The Senate appropriations bill is scheduled for floor action next week.

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