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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Securing America’s Borders: The Role of the Intelligence Community

Richard A. Best Jr.
Specialist in National Defense

Maintaining the security of U.S. borders is a fundamental responsibility of the Federal Government. Various border security missions are assigned to the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and other Federal agencies that work in cooperation with state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies. The success of their efforts depends on the availability of reliable information on the nature of potential threats to border security.

Given the extent of the land borders and the long coastlines of the U.S. and the number of individuals and vehicles crossing borders legitimately, the task of identifying law breakers within the overall threat environment is a major challenge. Law enforcement agencies obtain information from their usual sources—reports of crimes committed, tip-offs from informers, technical monitoring devices that now include unmanned aerial vehicles, and other sophisticated devices. In recent decades, and especially after 9/11, the potential for terrorists coming across the border as well as extensive narcotics trafficking have led policymakers to reach beyond law enforcement agencies to seek out information acquired by intelligence sources, including signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, and human agents.

Much of the contribution of intelligence agencies to the border security effort is classified and few details are publicly available. There is no public assessment of the intelligence contribution. Yet there are a number of concerns about the contribution of intelligence agencies that Congress may choose to review. First, border security missions might detract from traditional intelligence missions—monitoring the capabilities and intentions of major countries throughout the world and providing tactical intelligence to the military operations in which U.S. forces are engaged. Secondly, both intelligence and law enforcement agencies might in some situations be gathering information from the same sources, and there might be unnecessary and counterproductive duplication of effort. Thirdly, especially given the fact that many in the United States have deep and longstanding ties on both sides of the borders, observers are concerned that intelligence collection techniques might infringe the civil liberties of U.S. persons—citizens and legal residents. Finally, others point to the potential that the involvement of intelligence agencies in border security efforts could affect overall U.S.-Canadian and U.S.-Mexican relations.

As is the case with other “interagency” efforts in the Federal Government, congressional oversight of border security efforts is complicated by the number of different committees involved. Intelligence efforts are especially challenging in view of security classifications. Given public concerns about maintaining secure borders while protecting civil liberties, it is likely that the contributions of intelligence agencies to the larger border security effort may become a significant issue for congressional oversight. In addition, Members may seek to ensure that changes in authorization and appropriations for intelligence and law enforcement efforts be coordinated to ensure that productive sources of information are not neglected and that there is a proper balance among collection, analysis, and dissemination efforts. This report supplements CRS Report R40602, The Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Enterprise: Operational Overview and Oversight Challenges for Congress, by Mark A. Randol

Date of Report: December 7, 2010
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R41520
Price: $29.95

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