With over 45,000 law enforcement officials located around the globe, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs & Border Protection (CBP) component is the largest law enforcement agency in the US government.
Outside of the Department of Defense (DoD), CBP is the agency with the most significant global footprint, and, arguably, some of the strongest legal and operational capabilities to disrupt illicit global networks. But despite this, CBP remains an outsider to the Intelligence Community (IC), the federation of 16 separate government agencies that work together to conduct intelligence activities critical to our national security.
It’s time to change that.
Admitting CBP as a full and formal partner in the IC would not only be a win for DHS – giving the enterprise more budget stability, internal capacity and an amplified voice to influence national security priorities across the government – but the IC as-a-whole would benefit greatly from two things CBP brings to the table: its unique operational analytic capabilities and its access to valuable global data.
We have seen CBP’s successful capability in support of DoD, law enforcement and IC operations in the disruption and mitigation of international threats in multiple theatres and domains. Whether it’s the threat of the growth of Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere, dismantling terrorist networks transiting out of the Middle East into ally nations in Europe, or thwarting the flow of state and non-state threats across our own borders, CBP has grown to be a trusted and vital partner within the Intelligence Community.
Focusing on CBP’s benefits to the IC, on the operations front no other organization within the US government is as uniquely qualified to meet the current threat environment we face as a nation. The greatest challenges the IC will tackle over the next decade are inextricably linked to our nation’s travel, transit and border operations – all of which are in CBP’s purview; as the agency is armed with the authority to inspect and search outbound and inbound passengers and cargo entering and leaving the United States and has chief responsibility supporting and assisting our global partners in meeting their own border and security missions.
Specifically, over the past three years, we have seen CBP’s added value with predictive intelligence and coordination of IC activities in response to the influx of unaccompanied children (UAC) and special interest aliens on the Southwest border. CBP’s leadership, operational intelligence-gathering capabilities and globally-placed assets have been essential to our national response to this crisis, and to the IC’s ability to proactively mitigate and disrupt any possible threats.
These capabilities aren’t traditional to the IC, but as the threats our nation face continue to evolve, they will increasingly be leveraged, and CBP will continue to be in not only a collaborative position with the IC, but in many cases, will be in the lead for the community.
Additionally, in terms of collections, the data gleaned through CBP operations has already provided a treasure trove of information which gives law enforcement and DoD enhanced data sets to target terrorist and illicit networks. While DHS and CBP continue to aggressively work to ensure that appropriate civil rights and civil liberty protections and safeguards are incorporated into the department’s screening, vetting and information sharing, if admitted to the IC, CBP would bring additional data and information to mitigate, deter and disrupt global terrorist networks like no other federal agency.
Second – and equally as important – beyond CBP offering value-add to the IC, the benefits of CBP’s admittance to the IC would also include:
- Mission synchronization – Whether it’s supporting warfighters and partner nations in the fight against Daesh, disrupting homegrown extremism or deterring state and non-state actors from utilizing illicit travel routes to enter the US, CBP is already (and has been for decades) an equal operational partner within the IC. Providing CBP the capability to enhance the two-way resource and information sharing that is already occurring with the IC will only place CBP and DHS in a stronger position to meet its mission requirements.
- National intelligence program resourcing – DHS continues to find itself on the chopping block of congressional appropriators. Having an alternative, stable vein of resources from the IC program would allow CBP to plan more effectively and strengthen its operational capabilities.
- Stronger inter-departmental coordination – The Department of Justice (DOJ) has multiple offices and agencies within the IC, which has led to enhanced inter-departmental collaboration across DOJ to carry out its operational mission and requirements. With DOJ as a model, DHS Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) – which currently fills a strategically and tactically important role within the IC and within DHS as the key coordination point for intelligence analysis across the department with the IC and with state and local law enforcement – will only be enhanced by bringing CBP with its global law enforcement mission into the fold.
- Positive growth of the DHS intelligence enterprise – DHS I&A, under its current leadership, has filled a tremendous need and plays a vital role supporting the department’s intelligence needs as well as supporting domestic law enforcementstakeholders across the spectrum of threats our homeland faces. However, DHS I&A is not positioned or resourced to support the global and operational-level real-time needs of the IC partners. Bringing CBP into the IC would allow enhanced cooperation and capacity within the DHS Intelligence Enterprise, allowing for the continued growth of the department’s vision of a functioning, effective and operationally-focused enterprise.
- Streamlined hill oversight – Currently, congressional oversight of DHS programs has been bifurcated by the dozens of committees that oversee the department as-a-whole. However, integration of CBP into the Intelligence Community would allow for operational-integration within DHS and would, as a result, move oversight to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. With more operational alignment, Congress’ intelligence committees would be able to better oversee, prioritize and manage cross-domain and key collection and intelligence programs – a tremendous upside that would lead to stronger relationships between DHS and Capitol Hill.
To be sure, there will be challenges to integrating CBP into the IC. There will be the usual inside-the-beltway bureaucratic turf battles to overcome as well as the natural inclination of agencies to stove-pipe their intelligence. However, CBP’s unique capability to assess all passengers and cargo entering the United States – as well as assisting other nations in carrying out this same mission – is central to taking on the challenges in a 21st century threat environment.
And as the global threat grows, I believe so, too, will CBP’s value to the IC family.
Jason P. Houser is the former Senior Advisor to the Commissioner of CBP and former Deputy Chief of Staff of DHS’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis. He currently is Director of Homeland & Analytic Services at Redhorse Corporation; a US Navy Reserve Officer; Truman National Security Political Partner; and Adjunct Faculty of Homeland Analytics at Anne Arundel Community College.