Print this page

Homeland security/Law enforcement

DHS oversight could help eliminate potential duplicating efforts of interagency forums in securing the northern border

Why Area Is Important


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has primary responsibility for securing the nearly 4,000 miles that comprise the U.S.-Canadian border from Washington state to Maine. DHS components, in collaboration with other federal, state, local, tribal, and Canadian law enforcement partners, are responsible for securing this border, which involves coordination and the leveraging of scarce resources through interagency forums. In December 2010, GAO reported on overlap and potential duplication among two of these forums—the Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET) and the Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST). These forum members meet to share information on coordination of cross-border law enforcement efforts, among other activities, to enhance bi-national border security. IBET members focus on national security, organized crime, and other criminal activity between ports of entry; BEST members work to identify, disrupt, and dismantle organizations seeking to exploit border vulnerabilities. DHS components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Coast Guard, along with Canadian law enforcement partners participate in 24 IBETs (which are part of 15 regions across the northern border) and 3BESTs (led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement)that have been established across the northern border.

What GAO Found

In December 2010, GAO reported on northern border interagency coordination and highlighted concerns about mission overlap and potential duplication of effort between the BEST and IBET interagency forums. For example, of the 13 partners GAO interviewed that operate within two jurisdictions where two BEST and four IBET interagency forums are located, more than half of these partners cited concerns about mission overlap between these two forums that could result in duplication of effort. Specifically, these partners expressed concern that some BEST activities to investigate and interdict cross-border illegal activity duplicated IBET efforts to conduct the same activities because, among other factors, smuggling rings and other criminal organizations do not limit their activities by geographic area.

Overlap and potential duplication of effort between the BEST and IBET may also exist when these interagency forums are established in the same location, as has been done in at least two jurisdictions where BEST and IBET forums are located. DHS officials stated that decisions to establish interagency forums are made, in part, by DHS components participating in the forums based on their work requirements. Specifically, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters program manager stated that the agency sponsored the establishment of BEST interagency forums along the northern border because of the need for additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigative resources, and that the locations were identified on the basis of the agency's investigative workload requirements, but that analyses of whether the existing IBETs established in these areas could be used for these investigative purposes were not a factor.

Moreover, in an April 2007 report, the DHS Inspector General reported that it was not clear how a BEST would operate differently from IBETs and that care should be taken to avoid duplication of efforts with IBETs on the northern border. In 2009, IBET members convened an interagency working group to study the interaction between the IBET and BEST.[1]This group raised concerns about mission overlap and duplication of effort between the two interagency forums and identified the need for a vision that clearly defines IBET-BEST roles and responsibilities, as well the framework for their routine interaction and collaboration. According to DHS officials, in November 2010, DHS, the Department of Justice, and Canadian officials established another working group to evaluate best practices of existing interagency forums, including the IBET and BEST, to improve U.S.-Canadian border enforcement efforts.[2]However, as of December 2010 it is too soon to tell whether this effort will address the recommendation made by the previous working group.

In December 2010, GAO reported that DHS does not provide guidance or oversight to its components to establish or assess the results of interagency forums across northern border locations. GAO has previously reported that federal agencies can enhance and sustain their collaborative efforts by, in part, developing mechanisms to monitor their results. DHS officials stated that DHS is developing processes to provide department-level oversight of those forums; however, DHS has not provided documentation to support its plans, and thus the scope and the time frames for finalizing this effort are unclear. Completing such guidance and processes for oversight could better position DHS to identify areas of duplication and determine if existing forums could be modified or consolidated to leverage its resources more efficiently in conducting border security operations.

DHS intends to outline a vision for interagency coordination with an emphasis on partnerships, including the Canadian government, through its northern border strategy scheduled to be issued in calendar year 2011.[3]In addition, in November 2010, the Secretary of Homeland Security directed DHS components to develop a new approach to better integrate northern border enforcement efforts. Until DHS clearly defines IBET-BEST roles and responsibilities, aligns its resources, and ensures accountability through oversight, DHS risks hindering collaborative relationships with its partners and lacks reasonable assurance that resources are deployed efficiently and effectively to secure the northern border.

DHS is also working to establish a mechanism to identify and report on the benefits achieved through its participation in the IBET-BEST interagency forums, but has not maintained comprehensive data on the costs of these forums to help it ascertain whether the benefits obtained outweigh the costs. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials maintained information on that agency's participation in two of three northern border BEST locations and estimated its costs for IBET locations.[4]However, DHS could not provide information on the costs incurred by other federal, state, local, tribal, and international agencies that participate in BEST or IBET. The interagency group studying these forums raised concerns about law enforcement agencies gathering the resources necessary to participate in the increasing number of these forums. By leading efforts to develop a framework for identifying both its and its partners' costs for participating in each forum, DHS would be better positioned to evaluate the need for and success of both forums.

[1]Eight agencies were represented on the IBET/BEST working group, including Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. agencies including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard, and the Department of Justice. The findings of this working group were published in a final report. DHS, IBET/BEST Interaction Final Report (Washington, D.C., April 2009).

[2]This working group consists of the representatives from the same agencies that served on the 2009 interagency working group, which include DHS, Department of Justice, and Canadian law enforcement agencies, according to DHS officials.

[3]According to DHS officials, in addition to emphasizing the importance of its partners, this strategy is to guide efforts to deter and prevent illicit smuggling and trafficking along the northern border.

[4]Specifically, in 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement's costs ranged from approximately $1.5 million to $6.3 million per BEST location and from almost $480,000 to about $2 million per IBET location (dedicated personnel, facilities, and equipment). Since IBET positions are created out of the responsible Immigration and Customs Enforcement office's base funding, all costs associated with these programs are estimated since each responsible Immigration and Customs Enforcement office has to shift resources from one program to another. Customs and Border Protection does not track its costs of participating in either forum, but a Customs and Border Protection official responsible for patrolling the border estimated that its fiscal year 2010 cost averaged $100,000 for one BEST location and $182,000 for IBET.

Actions Needed


Ongoing DHS oversight of the interagency forums could help prevent duplication of efforts. DHS headquarters officials report that policies governing DHS coordination efforts are under development and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have deployed personnel to key northern border locations to improve collaboration and facilitate timely information sharing. However, DHS does not currently provide guidance or oversight to its components to establish or assess the results of interagency forums—which include both IBET and BEST interagency forums—across northern border locations to help ensure that forums established in the same locations do not duplicate activities. Accordingly, GAO recommended in December 2010 that DHS provide guidance and oversight for interagency forums to help prevent duplication of effort and help efficiently utilize personnel resources to strengthen DHS's coordination efforts along the northern border. By implementing this recommendation, DHS could help prevent duplication and identify whether existing forums can be modified or consolidated to better leverage scarce resources and more efficiently conduct border security operations. Moreover, as DHS establishes a mechanism for determining the benefits of participating in the IBET and BEST interagency forums, DHS could lead efforts to develop a framework for identifying the costs incurred by all partners participating in each forum. Doing so could help DHS evaluate the success of these forums and the need for both the IBETs and BESTs.

Framework for Analysis

The information contained in this analysis was based on GAO's December 2010 report as well as selected updates obtained from September 2010 through February 2011, including cost data related to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection's participation in IBET and BEST for fiscal year 2010. GAO interviewed relevant agency officials responsible for overseeing the accuracy of these data and determined they were sufficiently reliable for purposes of this report.

Area Contact

For additional information about this area, contact Richard M. Stana at (202) 512-8777 or