By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 11/10/2005 6:27:32 PM ET 2005-11-10T23:27:32

Draft legislation quietly circulating on Capitol Hill calls for merging two major investigative agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, MSNBC.com has learned.  The merger would affect 60,000 employees resulting in a major overhaul of the department’s operational structure.

According to the draft legislation, a copy of which was obtained by MSNBC.com, the Department of Homeland Security would be required to merge the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unit to create what the draft calls the Bureau of Border Security and Customs. 

The draft bill comes out of the House Homeland Security Committee.  A Committee staffer emphasized that no decision on when to introduce it, if ever, has been made.  However a Homeland Security subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the viability of merging the two agencies next week, providing a logical avenue for introduction of the draft legislation, known as the Border Security and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2005.

The Department of Homeland Security routinely declines specific comment on any pending legislation, said spokesman Russ Knocke; however, he said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has already decided to keep ICE an independent agency.  That decision, announced in July, came after the Department of Homeland Security finished a top-to-bottom internal review, as ordered by Chertoff shortly after he took office.

The impetus for the merger proposal comes from the findings of a withering DHS inspector general report.  In recommending the merger of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division with the Customs and Border Protection unit, the inspector general's report says that “[s]hortfalls in operational coordination and information sharing have fostered an environment of uncertainty and mistrust between CBP and ICE personnel.  Where collegial interactions should characterize relations between employees of the two organizations, we have been told of competition and, sometimes, interference.” 

The inspector general report is a stinging indictment of two agencies nearly at war with each other, competing not only for scarce resources but also locked in a struggle to carry out their mission, sometimes despite the hurdles caused by the other agency’s actions.

Inspector general investigators found what they called “a crescendo of frustration” among officials and rank-and-file agents from both agencies.  Neither agency, according the report, is willing to cooperate with the other for fear of being undercut. 

“The coordination issues raised regarding investigative activities between CBP and ICE have significant ramifications,” the report says.  “Some ICE investigations may have been impeded because of the lack of coordination and cooperation between ICE and CBP.”

The report brushes off the findings of Chertoff’s internal departmental review, saying “our report hasn’t been rendered moot by the Secretary’s decision not to merge ICE and CBP.  Rather, we encountered issues in the course of our review that require attention by DHS whether or not there is a merger.”

DHS found “much that is valuable” in the IG report, according to a written response from Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson.  “However, we strongly disagree with your core conclusion” that ICE and CBP should be merged, Jackson wrote.

Jackson then rips into the crux of the report saying it “lacks analytic vigor and is tainted by factual errors.”  However, Jackson does acknowledge that problems exist, the frustration level is “certainly real, and there are important, thorny management problems raised by it.”

Most of the hue and cry from the field agents, Jackson says, came at a time when ICE was suffering from severe budgetary constraints.  “That undoubtedly had ripple effects into relationships with CBP, which was not suffering such [financial] shortfalls,” Jackson said.

Those types of bumps occur naturally for any start-up organization, said DHS spokesman Knocke.  “The bottom line is those financial challenges have really been stabilized,” he said.

And Knocke disputes that such start-up hiccups have negatively impacted the mission.  To the contrary, he said, both agencies are operating at peak performance and their investigative numbers show they are out-performing, sometimes at a record pace, their pre-9/11 days. 

After spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” to create these two agencies within DHS only to turn around two years later and “spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars all over again” in merging them into one agency makes little practical sense, Knocke said.

As if anticipating that kind of criticism from DHS, the inspector general report notes that “costs associated with another upheaval may not be as expensive as it might seem” because all the moves necessary to create ICE and CBP in the first place still haven’t happened “and therefore will not require funding to undo.”   However, the report notes that should a merger take place, there would be a very real cost in loss of productivity “until the dust again settles.”  The report speculates it would be cheaper to make the move now rather than later.

A merger would have “a significant operational impact,” on the ability of field agents to do their jobs securing the homeland and protecting the borders, Knocke said.  “A merger wouldn’t necessarily result in an immediate threat reduction, given the amount of work that would have to be done to complete such a merger.”

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