The U.S. southwest border has long been vulnerable to cross-border illegal activity such as illegal entries, smuggling of drugs and contraband, and terrorist activities. While not the lead agency responsible for border security, the Department of Defense (DOD) provides U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with personnel and other support. DOD evaluates requests for assistance against certain criteria, including cost and how providing support would affect military readiness.
A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has looked at four such requests for assistance that DOD approved. In doing so, the watchdog found that DOD used unreliable cost estimates and didn’t fully evaluate the effects of the requests on military readiness. GAO also found that DOD failed to track all costs or give Congress timely information on the full costs it incurred for homeland security support, as it was mandated to do.
As far back as the early 1990s, DOD has supported counterdrug activities and has episodically supported its efforts to manage surges in foreign nationals without valid travel documents who are seeking entry to the United States at or between ports of entry along the southwest border. Since 2002, DOD has supported the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) mission to secure the nation’s borders and episodically supported its efforts to manage surges in foreign nationals without valid travel documents who are seeking entry—most recently since April 2018, when the President directed the Secretary of Defense to support DHS in securing the southwest border.
Between April 2018 and August 2020, as many as 2,579 National Guard members from 34 states and territories were sent by DOD to the four border states—Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—to support CBP. Additionally, in November 2018, DOD sent 5,815 active component personnel to support CBP in anticipation of a substantial number of foreign nationals arriving at the southwest border. These personnel came from a variety of types of units, including an Army Infantry Brigade, a Combat Aviation Brigade, and a Marine Corps Infantry Battalion.
Since April 2018, DHS has submitted 33 requests for assistance (RFA) to DOD for support to CBP’s mission at the southwest border. DOD established six criteria for evaluating RFAs, which it documents in decision packages. When reviewing four selected decision packages, GAO found that DOD fully evaluated four of these six criteria. GAO found that DOD developed rough cost estimates that were not reliable. In addition, the watchdog determined that DOD did not fully evaluate the effect on military readiness of providing support at the time the Secretary of Defense considered DHS’s requests.
GAO’s analysis of DOD obligations data shows that DOD obligated at least $841 million from fiscal year 2018 through May 2020 to support CBP’s southwest border operations. These obligations did not include pay and benefits for active duty military personnel.
GAO’s February 23 report states that DOD has not provided Congress with timely information on the full costs it has incurred since 2018 in supporting DHS. And, during GAO’s review, DOD did not submit its statutory report to Congress for fiscal year 2019, which was due March 31, 2020. Additionally, GAO found that DOD’s internal tracking of obligations excludes potentially significant costs of border support activities, such as installation support costs and the cost of benefits retroactively provided to members of the National Guard. A lack of guidance meant decisions about what costs to track were left up to the services and individuals entering information into the services’ financial accounting systems. Congress’s ability to conduct oversight and make funding decisions for DOD and DHS could of course be improved if it received more timely and complete information from DOD.
GAO’s review also revealed that DOD and DHS employed several key interagency collaboration practices for DOD’s support on the southwest border, but they have not agreed on a common outcome for DOD’s support in fiscal year 2021 and beyond. DHS anticipates needing at least the current amount of DOD support for the next three to five years, possibly more, and officials stated that the desired outcome is for DOD to provide the capabilities requested in the RFAs. But this differs from DOD’s desired outcome, which is to provide temporary assistance until DHS can independently execute its border security mission.
The Biden-Harris administration has of course made several changes to border security already. One of President Biden’s first actions was to halt all work on the border wall, and earlier this month he issued a proclamation to end the national emergency declaration on the U.S.-Mexico border. Consequently, the new leadership will likely also have a different approach to DOD support of border operations, but for now there are no immediate plans to move the thousands of American troops currently deployed at the southwest border. Their mission is scheduled to end on September 30.
It is under this new leadership that DOD and DHS must enhance coordination of interagency efforts in support of border security. In order to do so, GAO has made several recommendations:
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) follows GAO best practices for completing well-documented cost estimates when assessing DHS’s RFAs related to the southwest border by documenting its estimating methods for future RFAs.
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) follows GAO best practices for credible estimates when assessing DHS’s RFAs related to the southwest border by completing a robust sensitivity analysis of key cost drivers, a risk and uncertainty analysis, and cross checks for future RFAs.
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the Military Departments, identifies units likely to be sourced to support CBP on the southwest border and the potential unit-level readiness impacts of assigning those units prior to the Secretary responding to DHS’s RFAs, when conditions permit.
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in coordination with the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), provides the necessary reports to the cognizant congressional committees on time.
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) clarifies guidance to ensure that the military services and the National Guard Bureau track all costs associated with DOD support to CBP’s border security mission, including costs associated with installation support, oversight of border barrier construction projects, and National Guard personnel benefits and include those costs in future reports.
- The Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Defense should define a common outcome for DOD’s support to DHS, consistent with best practices for interagency collaboration, and articulate how that support will enable DHS to achieve its southwest border security mission in fiscal year 2021 and beyond.
DH concurred with the one recommendation made to it, whereas DOD concurred with the fourth recommendation only.