GAO: Obama Administration Has No Official Metrics to Measure Border Security


On February 26, 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report stating that the Department of Homeland Security has no official metrics in place to measure whether the border is secure and has no plans to adopt any such metrics until late this year.

Since 2004, the Department of Homeland Security used the term "operational control" as its metric of whether U.S. borders were secure.  (Testimony, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, Feb. 15, 2011) The Border Patrol defined operational control as "the ability to detect, identify, classify, and then respond to and resolve illegal entries along our U.S. Borders."  (Id.)  Broken down further, the Border Patrol defined its progress as follows:

Definitions of Border Patrol Levels of Border Security under 2004 Strategy

Level of border security Definition
Controlled — operational control Continuous detection and interdiction resources at the immediate border with high probability of apprehension upon entry.
Managed — operational control Multi-tiered detection and interdiction resources are in place to fully implement the border control strategy with high probability of apprehension after entry.
Monitored Substantial detection resources in place, but accessibility and resources continue to affect ability to respond.
Low-level monitored Some knowledge is available to develop a rudimentary border control strategy, but the area remains vulnerable because of inaccessibility or limited resource availability.
Remote/low activity Information is lacking to develop a meaningful border control strategy because of inaccessibility or lack of resources.

(GAO Report 12-688T, May 8, 2012) According to GAO, the top two levels — "controlled" and "managed" — reflect Border Patrol’s reported achievement of "operational control," as sufficient resources were in place to detect, respond, and interdict illegal activity either at the immediate border (controlled level) or after the illegal entry occurs (managed level), sometimes up to 100 miles away.  (Id.)

However, through the lens of this metric, it was clear that U.S. borders were still highly vulnerable.  At the end of Fiscal Year 2010, DHS stunningly reported it had operational control over only 13 percent of the border, or 1,107 of the 8,607 miles across U.S. northern, southwest, and coastal borders.  (Id.)  DHS further reported that 44 percent of the 2000-mile southwest border was under operational control.  (GAO Report 113-330T, Feb. 26, 2013) When analyzing the remaining 7,500 miles of border not under operational control, GAO found that that nearly two-thirds of these border miles were "low-level monitored," meaning that the Border Patrol had some knowledge to develop a rudimentary border control strategy, but border security was vulnerable due to limited resources or inaccessibility.  (GAO Report 12-688T, May 8, 2012) Remarkably, instead of investing the energy needed to secure the border, the Obama administration simply decided at the end of FY 2010 to abandon the use of "operational control" as a metric.  (GAO Report 113-330T, Feb. 26, 2013)   DHS told GAO that it had abandoned the metric because it needed one that reflects "a more quantitative methodology as well as the department’s evolving vision for border control."  In addition, in 2011, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher testified that operational control "does not accurately incorporate the efforts of CBP partners and the significance of information and intelligence in an increasingly joint and integrated operating environment." (Fisher testimony, Feb. 22, 2011) 

Even more disturbing is that DHS’s abandonment of operational control outright ignores a Congressional mandate.  In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which required DHS to build 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.  (Public Law 109-367)  While the definition of the term was slightly different, the Secure Fence Act also required DHS to take all actions "necessary and appropriate to achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States."  (Id.)

Perhaps most appalling is that DHS — the agency responsible for ensuring the security of the United States — abandoned the old metric for gauging border security without formulating a new metric.  In fact, despite the Obama administration’s push for passing amnesty legislation, GAO reports that DHS has no official measure in place for determining whether the border is secure. (GAO Report 113-330T at 17)  And, during her testimony (please note that subscription is required to access page) before the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 13, 2013, Secretary Napolitano said "we should not go back" to the prior definition of operational control.

Instead, GAO reports that DHS is simply using the number of apprehensions as an interim measure.   Before Congress last week, Border Patrol Chief Fischer testified this may be slightly modified to "the likelihood of apprehension" in certain border areas, but gave little additional detail.  (Federal News Service Transcript, Feb. 26, 2013)  Still, GAO criticized the use of apprehensions as a metric, stating it only reported Border Patrol "activity" not "results."  (Id.)  It noted that even CBP-commissioned studies documented "that the number of apprehensions bears little relationship to effectiveness because agency officials do not compare these numbers with the amount of cross-border illegal activity." (Id. at 17-18)  Finally, GAO said, using apprehensions as a metric "limits congressional oversight and accountability." (Id. at 17)

Nevertheless, DHS Secretary Napolitano has been touting a decline in apprehensions over the past few years as proof positive that the government has secured the border.  But even the Border Patrol acknowledges that there were multiple factors causing the decline, including the economic downturn.  (Id. at 6)  The Border Patrol also provided GAO data showing that apprehensions had actually risen from 327,000 in FY2011 to 357,000 in FY2012. (Id.)

Still, the Obama administration is in no rush to adopt a new measure for border security, despite the fact that it is asking Congress to pass a massive amnesty bill.  In 2011, the Border Patrol told GAO that it intended the new measure to be in place by FY2012. (GAO 11-374T, Feb. 15, 2011, p.12)  But in its February 2013 report, GAO states that DHS will not even establish a time frame for developing a measure until November 30, 2013. (Id. at 19)  Thus, it could still be months, if not years, before the administration is able to point to a consistent, reliable metric that gauges whether the government is in fact securing the border.  


February 2013