Construction crews work to erect border fencing along a levee near the Rio Grande in a remote area south of Weslaco, Texas, on Jan. 13, 2020. (CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

OIG Tells CBP to Act Now to Prevent ‘Exponentially Increased Costs’ at the Southern Border

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not effectively demonstrated the acquisition capabilities required to secure the southern border. Concentrating on the construction of a border wall may have bypassed more tech-focused or manpower-centric solutions.

Executive Order 13767, issued on January 25, 2017, directed DHS to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border. 

In March 2017, CBP’s Wall Acquisition Program was established as a DHS “Level 1” major acquisition program and was added to the DHS Major Acquisition Oversight List. As a major acquisition, the Wall Acquisition Program must follow government-wide acquisition regulations implemented through the DHS Acquisition Lifecycle Framework (ALF).

The ALF is a fourphase review process DHS uses to determine whether to proceed with an acquisition. The four phases are: 

  1. Need Phase – Define the problem; 
  2. Analyze/Select Phase – Identify alternatives and resource requirements; 
  3. Obtain Phase – Develop and evaluate capabilities; and 
  4. Produce/Deploy/Support/Dispose Phase – Produce and maintain capabilities. 

OIG’s latest audit examined to determine to what extent CBP has executed the Analyze/Select Phase, the second phase of the Acquisition Life Cycle Framework, for the acquisition of the barrier along the southern border. 

In its July 14 report, OIG stated that CBP “has not demonstrated the acquisition capabilities needed to execute the Analyze/Select Phase of the Wall Acquisition Program effectively”. The watchdog found that CBP did not conduct an Analysis of Alternatives (AoAs) to assess and select the most effective, appropriate, and affordable solutions to obtain operational control of the southern border as directed, but instead relied on prior outdated border solutions to identify materiel alternatives for meeting its mission requirement.

Back in 2008, CBP completed 85 AoAs for all segments along the southern border. CBP then recommended a border wall as the most cost-effective option to fulfill its operational requirements at that time. OIG requested copies during an audit 10 years later, but CBP could not locate 59 of the 85 (69 percent) AoAs. The watchdog found that the remaining 26 AoAs were limited in their usefulness because they did not reference the locations prioritized by Border Patrol for border wall investment. The cost-per-mile assessments were also outdated and consequently of little value. They did not, for example, account for the additional staffing costs resulting from the 2017 Executive Order.

OIG’s latest review also revealed that CBP did not use a sound, well-documented methodology to identify and prioritize investments in areas along the border that would best benefit from physical barriers. Nor did it complete the required plan to execute the strategy to obtain and maintain control of the southern border, as required by its Comprehensive Southern Border Security Study and Strategy. 

To help evaluate and prioritize locations for investment, Border Patrol developed a decision support tool in a spreadsheet. Data in this tool comes from two existing sources — the Capability Gap Analysis Process, and the 2017 Southwest Capability Roadmap (Roadmap). 

In the Capability Gap Analysis Process, Border Patrol collected and managed capability and operational requirements by identifying resources (personnel, training, equipment, technology, and infrastructure) in each southern border sector that fell short of meeting required needs. 

In the Roadmap, Border Patrol surveyed stations with border zones in their area of responsibility and identified the most important capabilities each station and sector needed. The Roadmap also identified areas of the border that might benefit from improved impedance and denial, domain awareness, and access and mobility. 

Using information from both of these processes, the decision support tool scored groups and ranked them 1 through 33 in priority for border wall construction. CBP’s Operational Review Board, comprised of CBP and Border Patrol subject matter experts, then considered the decision support tool rankings, along with broader operational concerns and intelligence reports, to establish a list of priority locations for border wall construction. However, OIG found that the Board adjusted the rankings without documenting its rationale for prioritizing certain lower scoring southern border locations over those that the decision support tool had scored higher for investment in impedance and denial. 

OIG therefore concluded that CBP’s ability to obtain and maintain complete operational control of the southern border with mission effective, appropriate, and affordable solutions is diminished. The July 14 report makes three recommendations:

  1. The Under Secretary for Management of DHS should require CBP to conduct an up-to-date independent AoAs to identify the most appropriate and effective solutions to obtain complete operational control of the southern border. 
  2. Border Patrol should revise its methodology for prioritizing southern border investments to include a comprehensive justification for the Operational Review Board’s final group rankings for southern border investment; a rationale for the weights assigned to the decision support tool’s evaluation criteria; multi-year border activity data in the decision support tool; and documenting any deviation from the decision support tool results. 
  3. The Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans for DHS should determine the need for an implementation plan for obtaining and maintaining complete operational control of the southern border, as instructed by the Comprehensive Southern Border Security Study and Strategy. 

In response to the first recommendation, DHS argued that the CBP Wall Acquisition Program properly followed instruction and other related guidance. It also asserted that conducting an AoAs of solutions is “neither appropriate nor necessary to obtain complete operational control of the southern border”. OIG maintains that this recommendation still holds and disagrees with DHS’ arguments.

DHS concurred with the second recommendation, however it said it would not use multi-year data but rather use the most recent operational and threat data to assess requirement needs.

The final recommendation also met with opposition. DHS said it makes very little sense as a matter of appropriate resource management or logic to retrospectively determine the need for an implementation plan to execute the approach identified in the Comprehensive Southern Border Study and Strategy. Again, OIG stood its ground and the recommendation remains open and unresolved.

DHS made several complaints of its own in relation to the OIG review and subsequent report. First, the Department said OIG overlooked CBP’s role as an agency under the executive branch of the government and “seem to chastise” CBP and DHS for not undertaking actions to explicitly violate language in the Executive Order — namely, actions other than immediately constructing a border wall. DHS also claimed the purpose or objective of OIG’s audit is misaligned with the conclusions and recommendations contained within its report. Specifically, the Department stated that the report “pivots” from the original purpose of determining the extent to which CBP executed the Analyze/Select phase of the acquisition lifecycle framework for the acquisition of the barrier for the southern border to focus on CBP’s efforts to gain operational control of the southern border. The Department also took issue with OIG’s analysis and discussion of CBP’s use of an AoA versus an Alternatives Analysis. Finally, DHS pointed out that it took OIG too long – 34 months – to complete this audit. 

The majority of work along the southern border so far has been accomplished using FY 2017 appropriations. As of July 2019, CBP had expended $268 million of the $341 million appropriated in FY 2017 to replace 39.5 miles of fencing. CBP also had expended $36.7 million of $1.375 billion appropriated to install or replace 7.2 of approximately 80 miles of border wall in FY 2018. In FY 2019, $6.7 billion of DOD funds were reprogrammed for border construction.

On May 3, 2019, CBP was granted permission to move to the Obtain Phase where it develops and evaluates capabilities for just the Rio Grande Valley sector wall project. OIG is expected to review and report on the effectiveness of this phase in due course.

Read the full report at OIG

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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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