Border Control: Always On Guard

Significant budgetary and political constraints should not keep people from fully exercising their authority and cause them to suffer the consequences should an attack take place. Working under budgetary-constrained environments is always difficult, but it takes on more urgency when there are clearly identified enemies that intend to harm the homeland. Difficult times call for innovative measures.

In a previous combat arms position on active duty with the 101st Airborne Division under President Jimmy Carter, combat units were unable to exercise their combat capabilities in the field due to the lack of a budget, yet were later chastised by inspection teams as not being ready to fight. This lack of readiness – due in large part to budgetary policy – may have been a major factor influencing Carter’s decision to first send and then hours later scrub two combat missions for the Third Brigade, 101st Airborne. In his book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, William Blum wrote that Carter, who had been in office for only two months, was reluctant to involve his administration in a far-reaching intervention whose scope and length could not be easily anticipated. This happened once in 1978 in response to the Cuban intervention in Angola and again in 1979 in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The difference is that, in 1978-1979, the threat was overseas and far away. Today the threat is at the doorstep!

Rebuilding Awareness

The group of government and industry participants at the roundtable held by DomPrep on 29 March 2016 at Florida International University in Miami are more than ready for the challenge. They have the experience of cooperating across jurisdictional and regulatory boundaries in South Florida from “closer than normal” cooperation after 9/11 and have set aside their egos in order to protect the citizens of South Florida by whatever means they have available. For example, after 9/11, strategies developed to leverage cooperation and new tactics created to keep ports and borders safe resulted in the capture of a suspected terrorist in the port of Miami in March 2003.

The main difference between 2003 and now is that there were no budgetary restrictions and the sense of urgency had not been diluted by the 15 years that have gone by since the fateful day that brought large-scale terror to U.S. shores. The nation is once again at that same point, only this time with an even greater threat of major terror attacks on the supply chain system or the infiltration across borders by incoming foreign and returning domestic terrorists.  Difficult times call for extraordinary solutions that stretch limited budget dollars.

The key to operating under tight budgetary constraints is to implement strategies that leverage all available resources to increase cooperation and awareness. This multi-prong approach must include:

  • Introduction of cutting-edge technology;
  • Fostering of increased interagency/private sector cooperation, not just among senior executives but all the way down to the deck plate level, where government workers carrying out day to day enforcement tasks interact with their industry counterparts; and
  • Collection and processing of “passive intelligence” utilizing public outreach/awareness campaigns such as United States Coast Guard’s Operation On Guard, which was one of the foundations for the America’s Waterway Watch – a nationwide campaign to passively leverage the voluntary cooperation of the public in and around critical infrastructure.

The following are recommendations to operate effectively in an environment that has severe budgetary constraints, yet remain an effective force by: leveraging organic capabilities through close cooperation among agencies and the private sector; and incorporating state-of-the-art technology that reduces labor costs and increases effectiveness.

Recommendation 1: Cutting-Edge Technology

Numerous types of technology can aid the government in threat detection by eliminating antiquated processes that deplete precious resources and increase productivity by enabling one person to do a job that would normally require several people. Bulk identification for the detection of unknown threats such as chemicals and other hazards has evolved over the past decade and has become the vanguard in detection devices.

By compressing the technology that previously was only reserved for the laboratory environment and placing it in the hands of field agents, the process of sending something to the laboratory and waiting hours or days for a substance to be identified has now been eliminated. Industry leaders understand that threats are constantly evolving, thus continuous interface with government partners allows for new substance identification and sharing of best practices as they emerge.

As the only two-in-one technology of its kind on the market, the Thermo Fisher Scientific Gemini instrument just won an Edison Gold Award for incorporating Fourier Infrared and Raman Spectroscopy into one machine. With less bulk, rapid detection times, and less complex methodology or decision-making algorithms for reading spectra or scans, the right equipment helps to increase confidence levels of government stakeholders by enabling them to quickly make assessments in critical situations.

Recommendation 2: Leveraging Cooperative Capabilities

In addition to technology, another component is for federal and state agencies, industry, and academia to come together and leverage each other’s capabilities with “closer-than-normal” cooperation. It requires agencies that are competing for a slice of the same austere budget “pie” to focus on smoothing over any interagency conflicts, especially in areas of overlapping jurisdiction, and developing an atmosphere of mutual trust. To accomplish this requires all parties to recognize the importance of overcoming the regulator/industry conflicts between government and private sector workers in order to focus on the real enemy – domestic terrorists.

In some ports, such as those in South Florida, this is exactly what happened after 9/11. Whereas in others, it took pressure from above to attempt to force cooperation among federal and state agencies as well as among government and industry senior managers. In fact, this is what the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and the Area Maritime Security Advisory Committees are designed to facilitate. The problem is that this facilitation is, for the most part, limited to the upper levels of management. This type of cooperation must be supported and pushed down from the top through mid-level management and manifest itself in the daily interactions between front line government regulators and industry employees. It requires eliminating the “us against them” mentality often prevalent between government and industry workers and instead refocusing on “us against the terrorists.”

This can only occur if all concerned are given clear indications about the gravity and immediacy of the real threat that terrorism poses today. Some of the issues that must be overcome to implement this “heightened” level of cooperation are complacency and mutual distrust. This requires education on both sides in the form of periodic awareness training and “live” exercises. For example, engaging a private sector facilitator that works with the training departments of both government agencies and the private sector can help develop timely unified intelligence briefings that can be shared with industry partners at the worker level. The key to fighting domestic terrorists is to know the enemy. The facilitator would alert partners about the latest terrorist tactics that they could encounter in their day-to-day work and report to their government counterparts. Further entrenching this level of cooperation can be achieved by developing relevant training programs that are reinforced with random drills and exercises.

Recommendation 3: Passive Intelligence

The operative word is “random.” Given almost any long-term security, the enemy can and usually will figure out how to breach almost any level of security if it remains static. According to the al-Qaida training manual, domestic terrorists are instructed to study patterns and movements, look for weak spots, perhaps penetrate with one or two of their own operatives (or gain information from an unsuspecting employee), and then pounce when they are best prepared. Maintaining a high level of security for a long period of time without a specific threat is self-defeating because of complacency and the ability of the enemy to study the defenses. Instead, the key to keeping the enemy off balance and unsure of when to strike is the random flexing of security muscles – even more so during higher threat periods.

In summary, when budgets are tight and forces are limited, agencies with overlapping or complementary missions must collaborate with academia and private sector organizations even closer in areas that can be exploited by terrorists – such as dirty bombs in cargo containers or persons of interest attempting to enter the country surreptitiously. The best way to accomplish this is through ongoing training initiatives to ensure that frontline government and private sector resources are focused on a common threat and are tested randomly. Protecting against terrorist surveillance at critical infrastructure sites is best accomplished by leveraging the public through “passive intelligence” collection such as existing terrorism outreach/awareness campaigns. Finally, by utilizing emerging technology that reduces labor costs and increases effectiveness, government stakeholders will greatly increase their ability to thwart emerging threats from terrorism against the homeland.




Armin Cate
Armin Cate

Armin Cate is a 34-year veteran of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), retiring as a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations Immigration and Customs Enforcement and as a commander with the Coast Guard Reserve. Prominent among his achievements was the detection and apprehension of Sayed Malike, a terrorist at the Port of Miami in March 2003. Since retiring from DHS, he has served as a consultant on border security for the transition team for Mexican president Pena-Nieto and has been a key member of design teams developing complex security solutions for airports, seaports, and intermodal transportation – including the modernization of the Air Defense system for Mexico and designing a secure rail corridor across the US/Mexican border. Trained by the Secret Service as a member of the JUMP team for presidential candidate George W. Bush, he has led executive protection teams for a Fortune 100 CEOs traveling to Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. He has worked as a consultant for sales and marketing for several manufacturers of cutting-edge, high-tech security products including Thermo-Scientific. He also provided protective services at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games, along with five former members of U.S. Navy DEVGRU, Seal Team Six.



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