Border Security:

Opportunities to Increase Coordination of Air and Marine Assets

GAO-05-543: Published: Aug 12, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2005.

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Three agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have primary responsibility for securing the nation's borders--the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Together, they enforce security across 7,500 miles of land border between the United States and Mexico and Canada, and protect more than 361 seaports and 95,000 miles of coastline. To fulfill their missions, these agencies deploy a variety of valuable air and marine assets. In this report, GAO analyzed (1) what efforts DHS has undertaken to facilitate coordination of the air and marine assets of the three agencies and (2) how the agencies' local air and marine units have, in selected areas, coordinated the use of assets and what challenges they faced.

DHS established departmental councils that have identified opportunities to achieve cost savings or cost efficiencies involving the department's air and marine assets--airplanes, helicopters, and boats. Specifically, the aviation council issued a plan that provides a framework for increasing coordination and collaboration across agencies in the operation and support of aviation assets and resources. For example, the plan identifies opportunities to improve the tracking of aviation assets, develop standardized training programs across agencies, and consolidate maintenance programs and facilities. An additional plan outlines a broad-based approach for effectively employing the department's aviation assets. The boats council helped CBP take advantage of large-volume discounts to purchase six boats through an existing USCG contract, saving an estimated $300,000. DHS officials said they are also developing a plan for merging the assets and personnel of the Air and Marine Operations division of ICE with CBP. This effort is intended to enable DHS to maximize the use of its aircraft and pilots and gain potential efficiencies in maintenance, acquisition, and training. DHS expects to finish planning how this effort will be accomplished by September 30, 2005. The agencies at the four locations GAO visited had undertaken efforts to coordinate assets and related training on an ad hoc basis because of the willingness of local commanders to cooperate with each other. For example, in South Florida, the three agencies jointly developed weekly air and marine schedules for the aircraft and boats they deploy to increase coverage in the area and reduce duplication of patrols. In Bellingham, Washington, USCG provided training to CBP staff, enabling CBP boat operators to supplement USCG crew. Officials at all locations noted that challenges affect the extent to which such coordination can reasonably occur. For example, some assets are not shared because agencies' needs differ. Headquarter officials also cited potential legal issues that could limit efforts to coordinate the use of assets among agencies, such as prohibition of the diversion of USCG assets to any other organization or entity of DHS. Local unit officials stated that DHS needed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the agencies in conducting their homeland security missions to ensure that DHS's air and marine assets are used in an efficient and coordinated manner that optimizes use of DHS's resources.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2005, we reviewed and reported on the need for better coordination of air and marine assets between the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Since that time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has provided guidance that helps ensure that air and marine assets are effectively coordinated, including clarifying the roles and responsibilities of USCG and CBP. On April 18, 2005, DHS issued Management Directive 0021, Aviation Concept of Operations. This directive provides a concept of operations for DHS aviation resources, including CBP Air and Marine Operations, CBP Office of Border Patrol Air and Marine Operations, and the USCG. As the directive notes, Air and Marine Operations had recently transferred to CBP from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and was in the process of integrating Border Patrol Air and Marine into its operations. DHS has not issued guidance for marine assets that is comparable to Management Directive 0021. However, the Department has issued strategic documents that address maritime operations, such as the Small Vessel Security Strategy, issued in April 2008. The Small Vessel Security Strategy outlines roles and responsibilities, relevant authorities, and existing interagency institutions for USCG and CBP, as well as other federal entities. In 2006, CBP and USCG chartered a Senior Guidance Team to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the two agencies. CPB and USCG coordination since 2006 has included, but is not limited to: operations, information sharing, acquisition, and training. The National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy is one example of a collaborative strategic document developed to ensure clarification of roles and responsibilities between these two agencies.

    Recommendation: In order to help ensure that the use of available air and marine assets is effectively coordinated to meet border security needs, the Secretary of Homeland Security should provide guidance that clarifies the roles and responsibilities of USCG and CBP, the primary DHS agencies that employ air and marine assets, in their homeland security missions, as well as how asset use should be coordinated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2005, we reviewed and reported on the coordination of air and marine assets between the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). In July 2009, USCG noted that since the issuance of our report, it determined that the Homeland Security Act does not in any way limit its ability to coordinate the use of its assets with other agencies. In addition, USCG noted that 6 U.S.C. 468 does not prohibit the agency from assisting other agencies outside its normal missions when needed, so long as such assistance does not impact accomplishing USCG statutory missions. In the case of maritime border security, USCG has primary responsibility among Department of Homeland Security components. USCG noted that it actively pursues these responsibilities by executing its statutory drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, ports, waterways and coastal security, defense readiness, and other homeland security missions. According to USCG, no change in this law is necessary.

    Recommendation: In order to help ensure that the use of available air and marine assets is effectively coordinated to meet border security needs, the Secretary of Homeland Security should determine whether the Homeland Security Act's prohibition on diversion of USCG assets, or any similar restriction in appropriations laws, limits the ability of USCG to coordinate assets with other agencies, and if so, evaluate the merits, including the costs and benefits of proposing a change in relevant laws to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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