GAO: DHS neglecting northern border

Wednesday - 2/2/2011, 6:37am EST

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By Meg Beasley
Reporter
Federal News Radio

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee leaders released a report Tuesday that revealed gaping security holes in the 4,000 mile border between the United States and Canada.

The Government Accountability Office report found DHS has situational awareness of only 25 percent of the border, 1,007 miles out of 4,000. Situational awareness is the ability to monitor and detect illegal crossings.

Further, GAO found DHS only has the ability to apprehend suspects, known as operational control, over 32 miles of the border, less than one percent.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said committee chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). "These findings should sound a loud alarm to the Department of Homeland Security, the Canadian government, and our committee. The American people are grossly under-protected along our northern border. We've got to work together with our neighbors in Canada to raise our guard. We should at the very least be able to detect all illegal entries from Canada into the U.S. so we can get this information into the hands of law enforcement agencies that are well situated to make the necessary arrests."

Lieberman and committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) held a press conference Tuesday discussing the report's findings and expressing disappointment in the findings. The committee will hold hearings to discuss the findings and recommendations after DHS has had time to review the report, lawmakers say.

The report specifically looked at whether DHS was improving communication among agencies responsible for overseeing the border. GAO found that DHS created several joint operations that are producing benefits. According to the report, interagency forums facilitate the sharing of intelligence and resources, and have helped resolve jurisdiction conflicts.

But the study stated, "DHS has not fully responded to a legislative requirement to link initiatives - including partnerships - to existing border vulnerabilities to inform federal resource allocation decisions."

Auditors found that officials from the agencies said they lacked resources to secure the border. However, at the press conference, Collins said DHS should be able to overcome budget constraints by forming smart partnerships with the people and funds they do have.

"One way we can do better is for the U.S. Border Patrol to develop productive relationships with state and local law enforcement agencies to address border security issues, particularly in rural areas," said Collins.

She said one example of an effective partnership is the Stone Garden Initiative, which funds joint border security operations by enabling state and local law enforcement who already work near the border to work closely with the Border Patrol as a force multiplier.

Lieberman said teams on the ground should be part of a larger effort to achieve situational awareness of the entire border.

"We will never have the resources to put people all along the border," said Lieberman. "But we ought to have the ability to detect people coming over and then, the ideal here is that DHS and our Canadian government partners will have the ability to, when they see an illegal entry, to ask federal, Canadian national, or state, provincial or local law enforcement to move in and apprehend those people."

The report recommended DHS enhance oversight to ensure efficient use of interagency forums and compliance with interagency agreements. Auditors also called on DHS to develop guidance to integrate partner resources to mitigate northern border vulnerabilities.

Lieberman also said that technology will have a significant role in monitoring the border. He said that despite the failure of technology such as the SBInet along the southern border, there are several off-the-shelf tools DHS can use now.

Lieberman and Collins said that while they want DHS to stop reallocating resources from the northern border to the southern, there is no talk of taking funds away from the effort to secure the southern border.

"The dangers at the southern border are intense, of course," said Lieberman. "This is almost like fighting two borders - protecting two borders. And you wouldn't want to take away from one to help the other. I think we've got to try to get more resources and be smarter about how we use our resources."

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