Drug Control: Certain DOD and DHS Joint Task Forces Should Enhance Their Performance Measures to Better Assess Counterdrug Activities

GAO-19-441 Published: Jul 09, 2019. Publicly Released: Jul 09, 2019.
Jump To:
Fast Facts

The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have formed task forces to combat the flow of illicit drugs into the United States. Among other things, these task forces may help coordinate the counterdrug efforts of military and federal law enforcement agencies.

The 5 task forces we assessed coordinate their activities in a manner that helps minimize duplication of effort. However, only 1 had measures to determine the effectiveness of its counterdrug activities, such as an estimate of the percentage of smuggling attempts that task force efforts disrupted.

We made 3 recommendations to establish or improve measurements of performance.

A Coast Guard team intercepting a boat suspected of smuggling illicit drugs.

Coast Guard boats and agents on the water during an operation.

Coast Guard boats and agents on the water during an operation.

Skip to Highlights

What GAO Found

Many federal agencies are involved in efforts to reduce the availability of illicit drugs by countering the flow of such drugs into the United States. Among them are the Department of Defense (DOD), which has lead responsibility for detecting and monitoring illicit drug trafficking into the country, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for securing U.S. borders to prevent illegal activity. DOD and DHS lead and operate task forces—Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF)-South, JIATF-West, and three DHS Joint Task Forces (JTF)—to coordinate and conduct counterdrug missions and activities. Task force officials reported that the task forces coordinated effectively with each other when they had shared purposes and overlapping or shared geographical boundaries (see map). The task forces also used coordination mechanisms that align with best practices, such as working groups and liaison officers, to minimize duplication of their missions and activities.

Map of the Areas of Responsibility for the Department of Defense (DOD) Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Joint Task Forces

Map of the Areas of Responsibility for the Department of Defense (DOD) Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Joint Task Forces

Note: DHS also has JTF-Investigations, which is a functional task force with no geographic area of responsibility.

Each of the five task forces GAO reviewed has performance measures, but only JIATF-South uses output (e.g., number of detected smuggling events) and outcome-based measures to assess the effectiveness of its activities. Specifically, JIATF-South developed an outcome-based measure of its overall effectiveness: the percentage of smuggling events it detected and provided to law enforcement that resulted in disrupted or seized illicit drugs. JIATF-West evaluates its numerous initiatives and activities, for instance, by determining if they were executed as planned, but has not established a vital few performance measures that consistently convey the overall effectiveness of its activities. Lastly, the DHS JTFs' performance measures are not outcome-based and do not fully assess the effectiveness of the task forces' activities. Enhancing their measures would better position JIATF-West and the JTFs to demonstrate contributions and convey trends in the overall effectiveness of their activities.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. government has identified illicit drugs, as well as the criminal organizations that traffic them, as significant threats to the United States. In 2017, over 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DOD and DHS created joint task forces to help facilitate and strengthen interagency efforts in combating the flow of illicit drugs, particularly in the maritime domain.

GAO was asked to review the structure of these task forces and their ability to coordinate and conduct missions effectively. Among other objectives, this report (1) assesses the extent to which the task forces coordinate effectively to minimize duplication, and (2) examines how the task forces measure the effectiveness of their missions and activities. GAO reviewed and assessed documentation on the task forces' missions, coordination efforts, and performance assessments and compared them to best practices from prior work, departmental guidance, and federal internal control standards. GAO also met with task force officials to discuss and observe planning and coordination activities.

Skip to Recommendations


GAO is making three recommendations, including that JIATF-West establish a vital few, consistent performance measures for its overall performance; and that DHS develop outcome-based performance measures for the JTFs' activities. DOD and DHS concurred with the three recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Joint Interagency Task Force West The Director of JIATF-West should establish a vital few performance measures that are consistently measured over time. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In November 2019, DOD officials reported that JIATF-W identified measures of performance in critical mission areas that have not previously been captured, including the Counter Narcotics Operations Center, Operational Intelligence, and Mission Support units. However, upon reviewing the new JIATF-W performance measures, GAO determined that they do not appear to match the recommendation in that it they do not seem to be higher-level and part of a "vital few" rather than just additional output-based performance measures. Then, in August 2021, JIATF-West reported that it had established and implemented the following four key performance measures to consistently measure over time. (1) Improve protection of the homeland through increased information and intelligence sharing with U.S. and foreign partners for disrupting and degrading illicit supply chains into the Western hemisphere. (2) Manage an alliance of partnerships to coordinate operational outcomes and better deny Transnational Criminal Organizations' (TCO) success. (3) Perform analyses that enable network illumination, targeting, and disruption and degradation outcomes. (4) Build capacity of foreign law enforcement, customs, and military organizations to counter malign influence of TCOs and state actors. As a result of establishing these measures, we believe JIATF-West has addressed the intentions of the GAO recommendation and is better positioned to convey information to decision makers so they understand the overall effectiveness of JIATF-West's counterdrug missions and activities in relation to broader U.S counterdrug efforts.
Joint Interagency Task Force West The Director of JIATF-West should establish specific targets that set a minimal level of performance. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In November 2019, DOD stated JIATF-W updated its Assessment Instruction to codify baseline standards and processes for collecting metrics in its directorates and would send personnel to training classes to improve their ability to measure performance against DOD minimal standards. However, it was unclear at that time whether JIATF-W had set targets as required by the recommendation. Then, in August 2021, JIATF-West staff reported that JIATF-West had overhauled its assessments process and implemented a formal Assessments Instruction. The decision was made to not use fiscal year 2020 data to inform targets due to the impacts of the COVID pandemic response on the data. However, JIATF-West is collecting data in fiscal year 2021 to be used in establishing accurate assessment target numbers. As a result of collecting these data and establishing these targets, we believe that JIATF-West has met the intention of the recommendation. Further, by collecting the data and establishing specific performance targets, JIATF-West will be better positioned moving forward to understand and meet acceptable levels of performance or outcomes, as well as better identify ways to improve it counterdrug activities.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should develop outcome-based performance measures for the DHS JTFs that are consistent. (Recommendation 3)
In December 2019, DHS officials stated they are overseeing the implementation of measures that contain outcome-based direction for assessing counter drug operations effects. The officials noted that addressing the recommendation requires a phased approach and added that DHS hopes to achieve two consecutive years of consistent reporting of performance measures. In November 2020, DHS provided an update. GAO reviewed the information and determined that DHS had made progress, but noted that more needed to be done for the measures to be outcome-based. In March 2021, the DHS liaison informed GAO that there were no new actions or updates to report. GAO will continue to follow-up with DHS on its progress toward implementing this recommendation. In May 2022, the DHS liaison informed GAO that Joint Task Force - West and Joint Task Force - Investigations were dismantled. As of May 2022, the only remaining Joint Task Force is Joint Task Force - East, which is overseen by the Coast Guard. Furthermore, the liaison noted current statutory authority for the Joint Task Forces expires later this year and it is not certain funding will be continued for FY 2023. GAO will follow-up with DHS next fiscal year to learn whether the authorization expired or was extended for JTF-E. .

Full Report

GAO Contacts