Border agency overhaul proves tricky for Bush team

Recent INS snafus have provided new momentum for the Bush administration's effort to reorganize border security agencies. But many hurdles remain in the way of consolidating federal border operations.

Within months of starting his new job, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge had a proposal to bring some order to the border. He wanted to combine agencies with similar duties, such as the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, and the Coast Guard, into one amalgamated border agency. In Ridge's view, the consolidation would tackle one of the greatest security weaknesses exploited by the September 11 hijackers--poor communication and coordination among the people protecting U.S. frontiers.

Such a combination would upset longstanding federal fiefdoms, however, and Ridge immediately met with bureaucratic resistance from each agency's protectors. The Border Patrol, a division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is in the Justice Department. Customs, whose original mission was collecting tariffs, is in the Treasury Department. The Coast Guard is part of the Transportation Department. Unable to quickly forge a consensus, Ridge told the department heads they had until March to come up with their own proposal.

So, earlier this month, the President's Homeland Security Council, with the blessings of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, recommended a merger of the entire 35,000-employee Immigration and Naturalization Service with the 20,000-employee Customs Service. The new agency would be housed in the Justice Department.

President Bush is said to be considering the proposal seriously, though he sidestepped endorsing it when asked last week. "I'm studying different options," Bush said. "The border policy needs to be reviewed. And if it is better achieved by a new construct, then I'll support it."

For at least two decades, policy makers have kicked around ideas for merging the somewhat tangled border agencies. Now, two recent INS incidents, which came just six months after the September 11 attacks, may give the President the momentum to make changes. But it will take the full weight of the White House to overcome opposition on Capitol Hill. And some homeland security experts worry that the proposal Bush is currently considering, the INS-Customs merger, is too inconsequential to improve national security.

"Is this going to really make a difference? The answer is no," said Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's a small step in trying to handle a very, very complicated and daunting problem."

The goal of merging the INS, which looks at people as they cross the border, and Customs, which looks at goods, would be to increase efficiency by simplifying the chain of command for two agencies whose duties are similar. Additional benefits would come from the sharing of technology, information on the identities of suspected bad guys who might try to cross the border, and training resources. Ideally, these combined benefits would reduce the chances that terrorists would unwittingly be allowed into the country. But reduce them by how much? No one knows.

Perhaps the most tangible result of merging the INS and Customs, say Capitol Hill aides and homeland security experts, is that it might be a sufficient shake-up to get the beleaguered INS back on track. Last week's report that four Pakistani men disappeared off a cargo ship after the INS allowed them into the country without a background check came on the heels of the news that the INS had recently sent out notices of approval of student visas for two of the September 11 hijackers.

"The reason this becomes politically feasible is because of the INS," said Elaine Kamarck, who headed the National Performance Review in the Clinton administration.

Of the various border-agency proposals on the table, the INS-Customs merger takes the most minimalist approach and is far less ambitious than Ridge's original recommendation, which was almost identical to bills sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.

Those bills are based on the findings of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century. Early in 2001, it recommended establishing an independent National Homeland Security Agency, which would include the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, elements of the Agriculture Department, airport security, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Thinking even bigger, Kamarck advocates merging the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs with the Border Patrol, Customs, the Coast Guard, and airport security officers.

After years of toiling to "reinvent government" under Clinton, Kamarck says carpe diem. "It would be better if they used the political momentum they had now to actually do it right and put all the pieces together that make sense, and override all the objections you're going to get," she said. "This is a very rare time. They ought to do it right. These things are so hard to do that you've got to really grab the opportunity."

But because success in constructing a new, efficient border agency will reflect directly on Ridge, Flynn said, the White House is looking for an approach that will encounter the least opposition. Ridge's proposal was scaled back largely because it met with resistance from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who does not want his department to lose the 36,000-person Coast Guard. The only Democrat in Bush's Cabinet, and with Capitol Hill credentials to boot, Mineta holds a lot of sway with a bipartisanship-conscious White House, noted Frank Hoffman, a former aide to the national security commission.

Adm. James Loy, the commandant of the Coast Guard, has also opposed the melding of the Coast Guard into a border agency. Loy commands a lot of respect at the White House, and he is in line for the job of Ridge's chief deputy should the current deputy, Adm. Steve Abbot, decide to return to the Vice President's office.

But Thornberry and other lawmakers see the watered-down proposal as a statement of Ridge's limitations as the Great Coordinator. Thornberry is sponsoring a bill that would combine the Border Patrol, Customs, the Coast Guard, and the Agriculture Department inspectors into one agency.

"I am frustrated by the fact that apparently Gov. Ridge agrees with me that it should be a more comprehensive border security agency, and yet the turf battles are winning out," he said. "He is not able to put in front of the President what he thinks should be done." Still, Thornberry says, whatever Bush proposes is what's most likely to happen.

Whenever an administration has sought to eliminate or combine federal agencies, the biggest hurdle has usually been the committees of jurisdiction in Congress. It is no different for homeland security. Even a merger of the INS and Customs is in for a rough ride on Capitol Hill.

"I intend to oppose it," says Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Treasury and General Government. "I don't think we ought to visit on the Customs Service the problems of the INS."

Under the Homeland Security Council's proposal, two of the big losers on the Hill would be the powerful tax-writing panels--the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee--which authorize the annual $3.1 billion Customs Service budget. Although the INS has a bigger budget--$5.1 billion--Customs is by most accounts a much more influential agency. Its role in regulating trade has given it powerful advocates in the U.S. business community. Local Customs offices are tied in to area businesses and are political players themselves, eagerly courted by members of Congress and other politicians.

One Senate Finance aide said that because the White House had floated its proposal on merging the agencies without consulting Congress, he interpreted it as a trial balloon that had little chance of remaining airborne. "No, I don't think it would ever happen," said the aide.

Turf battles aside, homeland security experts raise a number of policy questions about the proposed INS-Customs merger. Potential downsides include the failure to add the Coast Guard to the mix; the complications of housing the new agency in the Justice Department; and questions about whether the naturalization side of the INS will properly fit into the combined agency.

Although the Coast Guard leadership officially prefers to remain in the Transportation Department, former members of the service say it would be better served as part of a border security agency. "We are not the center of gravity for the [Transportation] Department," lamented one former senior officer with the Coast Guard. He said that many current members of the Coast Guard agree with him but are afraid to buck the leadership publicly.

There are two reasons why Transportation is so enamored of the Coast Guard, he said: It gives the department military panache, and it brings $400 million a year from the Defense Department, which Transportation uses to help pay for the Coast Guard's $2.6 billion budget. The Pentagon money thus frees up funds for other transportation priorities.

The idea of putting the new combined agency in Justice also troubles analysts. Hoffman says it should be a stand-alone agency with its own Cabinet-level head in order to wield sufficient political clout to make the necessary structural and leadership changes.

"They're still going to be bureaucratic stepchildren," he said. Kamarck worries that if the border agency is housed within Justice, it will just replicate all of INS's managerial problems. "You cringe at the thought that the people who have mismanaged INS now get to mismanage all of the border," she said.

A history lesson might be instructive here. Dave McIntyre, deputy director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, a Virginia think tank, noted that Congress established the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1947, six years after the attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that more military coordination was necessary. And it wasn't until the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 that the lines of communication were fully established among the four armed services.

Said McIntyre: "I don't think we're going to flip a switch and everyone is going to be wearing the same uniforms and the borders are secure."