The Border Patrol’s New National Strategy: Measuring What?

Just two weeks ago the Border Patrol launched its new national strategy in hearings before Congress.  Surprisingly the national media seem less than interested in the BP’s newest national strategy since 2004 which will, according to the Border Patrol, cover years 2012-2016.

Setting aside the national strategy itself for a moment, there is another equally crucial issue here: how does the Border Patrol intend to measure its performance along the border? In other words, how does the Border Patrol plan in its new national strategy to judge its own efficiency in reaching its stated objectives and goals?  And how will the public be able to judge the Border Patrol regardless of who is running it and which political party is in control?

Prior to 9/11 the Border Patrol was a hole-in-the-wall agency of less than 4,000 agents who went about their difficult work with no one looking over their shoulders.  After 9/11 Customs and Border Protection was thrust into the media limelight as the first line of defense against international terrorists along with its previous job of capturing illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. Measurements of Border Patrol performance  were annual rates of apprehension of illegal immigrants and amounts of drugs interdicted.

These measurements were deeply flawed.  Even though the Border Patrol’s baseline data-data against which agency effectiveness and performance can be objectively measured-was at best highly questionable, before 9/11 no one much cared.  After 9/11 these same data were closely examined because national security was determined to be at stake. There were myriad problems not only in the collection of these data, but in the ways in which categories of data were defined and reported.  In short, apprehension rates, agency “outputs”, were a totally inadequate measure of the status of security along our national borders.

In 2004 the Border Patrol declared in its “new” national plan that it would henceforth measure its progress in border security not just in terms of apprehension rates, but by the vaguely defined “operational control” of our borders.

Unfortunately by 2010 the Border Patrol could only claim 13% “operational control” of all our borders.  So what did the Border Patrol do when faced with such a low performance score?  It simply declared that “operational control” was not an adequate measurement and returned to apprehension rates as its “interim” method of measuring both its institutional efficacy and the status of our nation’s borders.

Then on Tuesday, May 8, 2012, the Border Patrol officially revealed to Congress that it was working on a “new” measurement of border security.  This measurement would be the product of a brand new methodology, still in the development stages, that is “quantified”.

Following the Border Patrol’s projected time line, it is a reasonable question to ask why, after more than a decade since 9/11, the Border Patrol has not been able to develop an accurate measurement of its efficiency and progress in border security given its huge increase in budget.

So it is not surprising, given these circumstances, that institutional memory completely failed Border Patrol Chief Agent Michael Fisher at the Tuesday Congressional hearing:  Mr. Fisher forgot to mention his agencies ICAD, ICAD II, ICAD III, ISIS, the American Shield Initiative, The Secure Border Initiative, SBI TI, the SBI Systems Integrator, and Boeing’s contract for a virtual wall, all failed projects in establishing border security. And let’s not forget the most recent boondoggle extravagancy, as did the Border Patrol’s Mr. Fisher, Raytheon’s Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Program.

It is reasonable for the public to demand an accurate measurement of the progress the Border Patrol is making in national security along our borders. Changing measurements from apprehension rates to operational control, then back again to “interim” apprehension rates in lieu of the arrival of a promised new metric smacks of the same historical promises of a Systems Integrator, a virtual border fence, or a phantasmagoric machine that for than $500 million can discover a dirty bomb in an eighteen wheeler.

Yet history reminds us, even if the Border Patrol won’t, that this agency is not in dire need of another new technological fix that has not yet been developed, whether it’s the latest surveillance gidget or now a trendy management strategy accompanied by a theoretical enumeration.  What the Border Patrol vitally needs, along with all our members of Congress, is an adequate measurement of Border Patrol performance which, placed within an historical context, allows anyone to fairly and consistently judge the progress of this vital law enforcement agency regardless of which party holds power.

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