Homeland security unit strapped for cash

/ Source: msnbc.com

The homeland security agency tasked with hunting down terrorists inside U.S. borders and shutting down human smuggling and nacro-trafficking is so strapped for cash that it’s asking agents to wash government cars at home, on their own time, and use money earmarked for confidential informants to pay for gas, MSNBC.com has learned. 

These and other austerity measures were put in place at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. The spending cuts barely kept ICE from going broke as Homeland Security’s budget dried up toward the end of fiscal year 2004, which ended in October. Emergency money for ICE, approved by Congress, also was in danger of drying up until President Bush Monday signed a bill approving the Department of Homeland Security’s $40.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2005.  ICE gets $3.6 billion of that figure.

Despite the newly approved budget, agents within ICE’s Office of Investigations were briefed Monday that the agency will run a $477 million deficit at current spending levels in fiscal 2005.  At that briefing agents were told current spending restrictions will remain in place for the immediate future, an agent attending the briefing told MSNBC.com.  “At this rate, ICE will run out of money in May instead of September, like we did this year,” said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

ICE is the largest investigative arm of DHS; its agents are responsible for everything from shutting down child pornography rings to breaking up terrorist financing networks to identifying and shutting down vulnerabilities at U.S. borders and safeguarding infrastructure.

ICE officials wouldn’t confirm the $477 million projected deficit, saying there was no way to know how the agency’s budget would play out through 2005.  “At this point I can’t make any predictions because we’re still evaluating the budget,” Chris Battle, ICE chief of staff told MSNBC.com. 

The $3.6 billion ICE budget for this fiscal year is essentially the same amount it got last year.  However, a fact sheet on the budget highlights $179 million in additional spending for improvements in immigration enforcement but doesn’t note what other areas might be cut to account for that increase. 

Battle acknowledges that fiscal year 2004 was difficult for the agency.  “We did ask our employees to put in some spending discipline,” Battle said.  Tightening the purse strings saved $120 million, Battle said.  The savings kept the agency from violating provisions of the Anti-Deficiency Act, a law that prohibits government offices for spending in excess of their budgets.

Those spending cutbacks, Battle noted, weren’t critical to the completion of ICE’s mission.  “More importantly we’ve emphasized to all of our field offices that they are to go forward and spend money on anything that is associated with their mission,” he said.

Indeed, despite “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as one ICE agent characterized the anti-spending mandates, the agency’s mission continues to produce results.

More illegal aliens have been deported this year than in previous years, Battle noted.  Innovative programs to ferret out and shut down terrorist financing networks are operating with stellar results, according to congressional testimony.  And offices that once split the human smuggling and product and drug smuggling duties have now been combined into a single resource, Battle noted.

Foreshadowing fiscal woes
That ICE was on the verge of going broke was no surprise to agency employees. 

“Some staff must use their own money for legitimate expenses, such as gas for their official government vehicles, because credit cards have been deactivated by the card companies for lack of payment,” noted a June 25th letter from Rep. Jim Turner, D-Tex., ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge.  Turner’s letter noted other budgetary concerns involving ICE.

And in early September Michael Garcia, the agency's assistant secretary, told employees in an e-mail that the agency’s financial tank was nearly empty.  “I am directing that ICE divisions and programs stop obligating funds for all nonmission-essential, nonpayroll items," he wrote. That edict was only supposed to last until Oct. 1st, but when that date came and went without a budget, ICE field offices clamped down on spending across the board.

Everything from cell phone use to limiting express mail packages to a restriction on how frequent oil changes should be made went into effect in October.  Any car that needed repairs was simply parked in the motor pool and not fixed; carpooling is being encouraged.  Agents were told “to see if necessary supplies are available” from other area offices, according to an internal ICE e-mail from a west coast field office that was obtained by MSNBC.com.

“We simply do not have sufficient funds if we continue to operate with a ‘business-as-usual’ attitude,” the ICE e-mail says.  “If everyone adheres to the above, we may get through this time without more severe restrictions,” the e-mail says.

As of Monday the spending restraints were still in place, sources told MSNBC.com. 

Indeed, a hiring freeze within ICE, in place before the new budget was signed, is still in force as is a moratorium on any new training after the last class graduates in early November.

“Without this training, thousands of agents will be prevented from finding and removing tens of thousands of fugitive aliens at large nationwide,” said Randy Callahan, an ICE agent and a union local official of American Federal of Government Employees.

Tough year acknowledged
Battle acknowledges that fiscal year 2004 was a tough budget year. “It was the first year of a remarkably complicated merger.  I would go so far to say it was probably, if not the most, certainly one of the most, difficult and complex government mergers ever.”

The Government Accountability Office and the DHS Inspector General have published reports detailing complications and hurdles arising from the shotgun marriage of agencies that ultimately created ICE.

“So one of the issues we take a look at [in FY05] is a smoother budget process,” Battle said.  “Some of the spending issues, some of the challenges, some of the difficulties we faced in FY04 will not be there in FY05.”

Just how much longer current spending restraints or what other types of spending curbs  might be implemented are unknown, Battle said. 

“At this point there have been no orders that have gone out discussing what we will or won’t do,” he said.  “We’re looking at the budget right now and evaluating what steps we need to take to live within the budget as it exists.”