Drug Control:

Agencies Need to Plan for Likely Declines in Drug Interdiction Assets, and Develop Better Performance Measures for Transit Zone Operations

GAO-06-200: Published: Nov 15, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 2005.

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One of the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy's priorities is to disrupt the illicit drug market. To this end, the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security provide ships and aircraft to disrupt the flow of illicit drugs, primarily cocaine, shipped from South America through the Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean--an area known as the transit zone. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) oversees the U.S. anti-drug strategy. The Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South) directs most transit zone operations. We examined U.S. efforts to interdict maritime movements of cocaine. We analyzed the (1) changes in cocaine seizures and disruptions since calendar year 2000, (2) trends in interdiction assets provided since fiscal year 2000, (3) challenges to maintaining transit zone interdiction operations, and (4) performance measures the agencies use to assess their progress.

Cocaine seizures and disruptions in the transit zone have increased about 68 percent since calendar year 2000--from 117 metric tons in 2000 to 196 metric tons in 2004. About two-thirds of the disruptions were in the western Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean where the United States has most of its interdiction assets. JIATF-South and other cognizant officials attribute the increase to improved interagency cooperation and intelligence, the introduction of armed helicopters to stop go-fast boats, and increased cooperation from nations in the region. Since fiscal year 2000, the availability of assets--ships and aircraft--to disrupt drug trafficking in the transit zone have varied. On-station ship days peaked in fiscal year 2001 and flight hours peaked in 2002, but both have generally declined since then, primarily because the Department of Defense has provided fewer assets. Declines in Defense assets have been largely offset by the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and certain allied nations. Nevertheless, in recent years, JIATF-South has detected less than one-third of the "known and actionable" maritime illicit drug movements in the western Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean. Yet, once detected, over 80 percent of the drug movements were disrupted. Various factors pose challenges to maintaining the current level of transit zone interdiction operations. The reduced availability of the U.S. Navy's P-3 maritime patrol aircraft due to structural problems will degrade the U.S. capability to detect suspect maritime movements, readiness rates of older Coast Guard ships have declined since fiscal year 2000, and the surface radar system on the Coast Guard's long-range surveillance aircraft is often inoperable. Coast Guard and CBP officials also noted that they may not be able to sustain their level of assets in light of budget constraints and other homeland security priorities that may arise. These officials expressed concern that the long-term implications of likely declines in transit zone assets have not been addressed. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires agencies to develop performance measures to assess progress in achieving their goals. The Coast Guard's measures relate to reducing cocaine flow through the transit zone, CBP's planned measures are not specific to the transit zone, and Defense's planned measures focus on the number of disruptions of cocaine movements. But data that would help in assessing transit zone interdiction operations are problematic. For instance, in its assessment for 2004, ONDCP reported that between 325 metric tons and 675 metric tons of cocaine may be moving towards the United States. Such a wide range is not useful for assessing transit zone interdiction operations. In addition, data on U.S. drug usage are difficult to obtain and often cannot be generalized to the United States. In a 2001 report for ONDCP, the National Research Council made similar observations and recommended ways to improve the collection and analysis of illicit drug data, but ONDCP has not fully addressed them.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security should develop and coordinate, in conjunction with the Director of ONDCP, performance measures for transit zone interdiction operations that take advantage of available drug interdiction data (such as detections, seizures, and disruptions) to provide a basis for (1) assessing transit zone interdiction performance and (2) deciding how to deploy increasingly limited assets, such as the P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has developed and submitted to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) performance measures for its counternarcotics activities. The Coast Guard, a component of DHS, has developed and submitted to ONDCP performance measures on the cocaine removal rate. Customs and Border Protection, another DHS component, has submitted to ONDCP performance measures tracking the seizure rates of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. DHS provides surveillance aircraft, maritime vessels, and law enforcement assistance in the transit zone.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security should develop and coordinate, in conjunction with the Director of ONDCP, performance measures for transit zone interdiction operations that take advantage of available drug interdiction data (such as detections, seizures, and disruptions) to provide a basis for (1) assessing transit zone interdiction performance and (2) deciding how to deploy increasingly limited assets, such as the P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, in May 2009 DOD submitted to ONDCP performance measures for its counternarcotics activities. Some of DOD's counternarcotics performance measures focus on transit zone interdiction operations and use drug interdiction data to assess DOD's performance in the transit zone. These include specific performance measures concerning the use of air and maritime assets in support of multi-agency counternarcotics detection and monitoring operations in the transit zone. Two performance measures detail the number of sorties and operational hours of the P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security should plan for the likely decline in the future availability of ships and aircraft for transit zone interdiction operations and, specifically, determine how they will compensate for the decline in P-3 maritime patrol aircraft availability.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Over the past 4 years, the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has implemented a service life extension program for its P-3 maritime patrol assets, according to testimony by Major General Michael Kostelnik, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Air and Marine Operations at CBP. According to DHS, the entire CBP fleet of 16 P-3 aircraft was grounded for part of fiscal year 2006, due to stress cracks. Congress provided funding in fiscal year 2007 to DHS to, according to the Department, enable it to begin a long-term program to extend the life of the P-3s. The Office of the Inspector General for DHS has reported that the service life extension program will allow the P-3 fleet to play a significant role in the transit zone through 2027.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security should plan for the likely decline in the future availability of ships and aircraft for transit zone interdiction operations and, specifically, determine how they will compensate for the decline in P-3 maritime patrol aircraft availability.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Over the past 4 years, the Department of Defense has implemented a number of steps to react to the decline in the availability of ships and aircraft for transit zone interdiction operations. According to the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the combatant command responsible for transit zone interdiction operations, DOD plans to use other forms of aerial surveillance, including the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) that is currently being developed, to improve detection capabilities as the number of available flight hours for the P-3 maritime patrol aircraft decreases. In addition, SOUTHCOM plans to increasingly rely on U.S.-supported partner nations for detection and monitoring efforts as DOD capabilities in this area diminish.

    Recommendation: The Director of ONDCP should address each of the recommendations made by the National Research Council and report to the Congress what departments and agencies need to take action, what remains to be done, and when action is expected to be completed. In those instances where ONDCP reports that action is not necessary, it should document the reasons why.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2005, we reported that data used to help assess U.S. drug usage would remain problematic if the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and other cognizant agencies did not fully address the 30 recommendations issued by the National Research Council (NRC) in its 2001 report, "Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs." We recommended ONDCP address each NRC recommendation and report to Congress what departments and agencies need to take action, when action is expected to be completed, and if no action was taken, why (GAO-06-200, 11/15/05). In December 2006, ONDCP completed a spreadsheet we prepared by listing how, if at all, it addressed NRC's 30 recommendations, including the agencies involved and completion dates. In instances where ONDCP reported that action was not necessary, it stated the reasons why. We shared this information with congressional staff later that same month. According to the spreadsheet, ONDCP took action on half of NRC's recommendations and explained why it did not take action on the other half. For example, to address one recommendation, ONDCP established a research project to determine how illegal drug prices are calculated and who is among the labor supply of illegal drug dealers. To explain why it did not take action for another NRC recommendation, ONDCP cited ethical objections by the drug treatment research community.

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