Boarding team members from the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf and Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team search a panga suspected of smuggling illicit drugs in concealed cargo holds during Bertholf’s counternarcotics patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean on March 5, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew S. Masaschi)

GAO Tells DOD and DHS to Better Assess Counterdrug Activities

The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have formed task forces to combat the flow of illicit drugs into the United States. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment of these task forces has found only one had measures to determine the effectiveness of its activities.

Illicit drugs, as well as the criminal organizations that traffic them, are 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.

Many federal agencies are involved in efforts to reduce the availability of illicit drugs by countering the flow of such drugs into the U.S. The Department of Defense (DOD) has lead responsibility for detecting and monitoring illicit drug trafficking into the country, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 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.

The GAO investigation found that the task forces coordinated effectively with each other when they had shared purposes and overlapping or shared geographical boundaries. 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.

The findings were not so positive for performance measures however. While each of the five task forces has performance measures in place, 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 performance measures that consistently convey the overall effectiveness of its activities.

According to JIATF-West officials, the nature of JIATF-West’s missions and activities make it inherently more difficult to assess and quantify the effectiveness of its efforts relative to other task forces. For example, unlike JIATF-South, which is annually allocated assets to support its missions and activities and can measure results—such as tons of cocaine seized—JIATF-West’s initiatives and activities are primarily focused on information sharing and helping partner nations improve their counterdrug capabilities, activities for which results may be more difficult to quantify.

GAO says JIATF-West could develop a performance measure that calculates the percentage of leads it provides to foreign partners that result in seizures or apprehensions. Such a measure could demonstrate JIATF-West’s overall effectiveness in supporting allies and foreign partners in combating illicit drug trafficking in its area of responsibility, in keeping with one of its operational priorities.

In addition, GAO recommends JIATF-West establish specific targets that set a minimal level of performance.

The three DHS JTFs’ performance measures are not outcome-based and GAO found they do not fully assess the effectiveness of the task forces’ activities. The DHS JTFs were fully operational in fiscal year 2016 and began assessing their performance and producing performance reports in fiscal year 2017. Since they began reporting on their performance, the measures the JTFs reported changed in fiscal year 2018 and, according to JTF officials, will change again in fiscal year 2019.

In the fiscal year 2017 performance report, the JTFs reported on activities, such as the amounts of drugs seized, arrests made, and currency seized. However, according to task force officials, the 2017 report’s performance measures did not accurately reflect the strategic-level coordination the JTFs performed. For example, the measures the JTFs reported in fiscal year 2017 focused on drug seizures and arrests made by the DHS components. While the drug seizures and arrests made by the DHS components may have been made possible because of coordination activities of the DHS JTFs, using data on drug seizures and arrests as JTF performance measures resulted in double-counting because the components reported on the same seizures and arrests for their respective counterdrug programs.

To address these issues for fiscal year 2018, the JTFs and the DHS Coordination Cell developed a new set of performance measures that were intended to better reflect the JTFs’ coordination activities and contributions. For example, a new JTF performance measure developed for fiscal year 2018 included the number of leads that the JTFs provided to a partner law enforcement agency, DHS component, or foreign government partner for interdiction or investigative action.

JTF Coordination Cell officials told GAO that the fiscal year 2018 JTF performance measures are not outcome-based because it is difficult to quantify and capture the contributions of the JTFs through their roles as coordinators and facilitators of missions and activities that are conducted by DHS components.

GAO recommends that DHS design outcome-based performance measures that are reflective of the JTFs’ coordination and information sharing activities. Ultimately these should establish a consistent set of performance measures that will allow the JTFs to better assess and convey their progress over time.

DOD and DHS have agreed with GAO’s findings and concurred with the recommendations. DHS aims to begin implementing measures from March 2020.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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