Non-homeland security missions:
• Marine safety
• Search and rescue
• Living marine resources
• Marine environmental protection
• Ice operations
Homeland security missions:
• Ports, waterways and coastal security
• Drug interdiction
• Migrant interdiction
• Defense readiness
• Other law enforcement (such as blocking illegal incursions into U.S. waters)
In recent installments of “The Outtakes” focusing on ABC’s reality television series, “Homeland Security USA,” the Center for Investigative Reporting has posted some intriguing statistics for readers gleaned from federal reports that show how much the U.S. Coast Guard has spent executing its more traditional responsibilities such as search and rescue compared to its so-called “homeland security missions,” expanded significantly after 9/11.
We already know that the FBI’s big push into securing the homeland meant fewer agents were available to investigative Wall Street corruption and real estate fraud during and after the market meltdown. The bureau today is still dedicating only a fraction of the resources and personnel to financial fraud that it did for the savings and loan scandals of the 80s and 90s.
But the Coast Guard’s area of expertise is uniquely water bound. Figures we looked at showed the Coast Guard budgeted $100 million more in 2009 to finance drug and migrant interdictions—both of which are considered “homeland security missions”—than it set aside for reducing maritime fatalities and injuries and conducting search and rescue efforts, arguably its core mandate.
However, we stopped short of wondering aloud whether the Coast Guard is sacrificing some of its older missions. Perhaps Congress or the White House applied pressure on the Coast Guard to stop more immigrants and drug smugglers from attempting to enter the United States via the open seas, even though a battery of other federal agencies have similar responsibilities. Or maybe there are just fewer fishermen being threatened by dangerous waters and in need of help.
Now, a recent December report from the Inspector General’s Office in the Department of Homeland Security says the Coast Guard is spending more time on law enforcement-type activities and that could mean it’s less capable in the future of meeting its marine safety and environmental protection obligations. According to the report:
“Our analysis of the Coast Guard’s mission performance, resource hours and budget projections shows a clear trend toward emphasizing the homeland security missions, which will lead to continuing difficulty in meeting future performance targets for the non-homeland security missions … Coast Guard budget projections in dollars and personnel from [fiscal years] 2007 through 2009 illustrate decreases for the non-homeland security missions in contrast to significant increases for the homeland security missions, especially for the ports, waterways, and coastal security mission.”
The report also seems to make clear why Coast Guard officials would so vigorously dispute the inspector general’s findings and insist homeland security isn’t taking over its time and resources. Section 888 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which laid the groundwork for the creation of the department by folding numerous agencies into one mammoth bureaucracy, specifically instructs that the Coast Guard’s responsibilities not be altered as a result of its inclusion in the department:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, the authorities, functions, and capabilities of the Coast Guard to perform its missions shall be maintained intact and without significant reduction after the transfer of the Coast Guard to the Department, except as specified in subsequent Acts. … No mission, function, or asset (including for purposes of this subsection any ship, aircraft, or helicopter) of the Coast Guard may be diverted to the principal and continuing use of any other organization, unit, or entity of the Department, except for details or assignments that do not reduce the Coast Guard’s capability to perform its missions. … The Secretary may not substantially or significantly reduce the missions of the Coast Guard or the Coast Guard’s capability to perform those missions, except as specified in subsequent Acts.”
For good measure, the law then mandates that the inspector general review the Coast Guard’s performance each year “with a particular emphasis on examining the non-homeland security missions” to make certain that Section 888 is being followed.
The Coast Guard’s homeland security apparatus, meanwhile, made a star appearance in episode four of ABC’s “Homeland Security USA.”
In one segment, intelligence received by Customs and Border Protection indicates that 93 Dominican migrants are attempting to make their way illegally to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in what’s known as a “yola,” a rustic wooden boat that’s mostly ill-suited for raging deep-ocean waters.
A CBP prop plane stuffed with sensitive radars and night-vision cameras spots the hapless craft where its engines have failed and the people onboard are at risk of tumbling into the ocean amid a brewing storm. As part of a joint operation involving numerous agencies charged with protecting Puerto Rico’s 434 miles of coastline, a Blackhawk helicopter and Coast Guard cutter known as Matinucus are dispatched to the Mona Passage to scoop up the migrants before the yola capsizes.
“We called our command center and told them that all law-enforcement aspects of the case would have to be put on hold—that this was a search and rescue case because of the sea conditions,” Jay Guyer of the Coast Guard tells the audience.
The boat’s passengers are plucked from the whitecaps during a three hour-long operation and given food and water before being escorted back to the Dominican Republic. The show’s camera team interviews a few survivors as Matinucus leaves the battered yola in its sizeable wake.
“Unfortunately,” one says in Spanish, “I will have to do this again because the economic situation in our country doesn’t permit us … there is no source of work, there is no work. You must go out and risk losing your life for a future.”
The yola’s captain is allegedly a well-known human smuggler named Manuel de la Cruz, or “Bigfoot,” who is arrested on camera and faces up to 10 years in prison for violating U.S. immigration laws, viewers are told. But most of the CBP and Coast Guard officials involved cast the mission as a Good Samaritan gesture to save the Dominican migrants from certain tragedy rather than an assignment to enforce American boundaries.
“I think the significance of this operation is there’s multi-agencies working together to put someone behind bars for endangering aliens on the high seas out there,” U.S. Border Patrol Chief Mike Debruhl says.
“The law enforcement aspect is a very important job, but also from a humanitarian aspect—I feel we absolutely saved 93 lives tonight,” Guyer adds.
Behind the scenes, Puerto Rico’s civilian population is apparently not always excited about its role of hosting U.S. law-enforcement authorities. In a job description for the area posted online, the Coast Guard warns applicants and transferees, “Do not travel to Puerto Rico in uniform. Wear civilian clothes. Although patriotism is on the rise here, uniforms will still make you a target in the metro area.”
As for its homeland security missions, Coast Guard officials complained that budget projections used as data for the inspector general’s recent conclusions could be misleading.
But the independent watchdog office also looked at where the Coast Guard has applied its resource hours and personnel since 2001, not just its budgeted dollars. The amount of time devoted to non-homeland security missions has dropped with fair consistency and now makes up less than half the total number of resource hours even taking into account the Coast Guard’s search and rescue role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Far more hours were spent during 2007, for example, on drug and migrant interdiction and defense readiness than on marine safety, search and rescue and environmental protection. That might explain why the Coast Guard has failed to meet some of its traditional performance targets. The Coast Guard promised to limit the five-year average number of commercial deaths and injuries on oceans and waterways under American jurisdiction in 2008 to less than or equal to 225. But 244 actually occurred.
The Coast Guard further promised to save 87 percent of mariners facing imminent danger last year, but the percent actually reached was 83 percent. Translated, that means 808 people lost their lives in such situations during 2008, an increase of 20 over 2007, despite the fact that the number of cases involving endangered mariners dropped significantly during that period, which arguably should have meant fewer deaths rather than more. Four of six non-homeland security performance targets were not met in 2006 and 2007, and the Coast Guard’s promise to enforce federal fishing regulations and protect marine environments hasn’t been fully met since 2003.
On the other hand, the Coast Guard has mostly succeeded in meeting its homeland security performance targets for the last several years. For instance, it set a record during 2007 for the pounds of cocaine seized in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific, a total of 355,754. In addition, its resource hours devoted to stopping undocumented migrants from entering the United States have skyrocketed since 2001.
One of the most notable areas the Coast Guard ventured into heavily after Sept. 11 is so-called “defense readiness,” i.e. its role in promoting national security and participating in defense operations with other entities such as the Navy. Resource hours there have climbed 500 percent in recent years and the Coast Guard has made major purchases of state-of-the-art ships known as “national security cutters,” part of a buying spree of new “Deepwater” assets.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s national security cutter Bertholf, built by private contractors, cost $256 million more than anticipated and was delayed by two years.
The Deepwater program is a years-long $24 billion effort to upgrade the Coast Guard’s vessels and aircraft by acquiring hundreds of new boats, planes and helicopters and modern surveillance and reconnaissance systems. It started in the mid-1990s and is the largest acquisition campaign in the Coast Guard’s history. But the program has suffocated under extraordinary cost overruns, differences with a private sector contractor over what was to be delivered and a Justice Department probe.
A joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman received an immense $17 billion contract to administer Deepwater in 2002, but the Government Accountability Office warned at the time that there could be serious risks associated with such a large, single acquisition. Rather than buy big new assets individually like different sets of ships and helicopters, the Coast Guard decided to purchase everything in a single package hoping that by doing so it could foster more integration across all of its systems (such as among communications links).
Watchdogs like the GAO and inspector general later found that the contractors were allowed too much authority in defining performance standards, the contract’s operational requirements were vaguely worded, and the contract award and incentive fees paid to the companies as work progressed were based on “attitude and effort” rather than clear and successful outcomes.
According to a Congressional Research Service report on Deepwater published in October 2008:
“Some observers expressed the view that using a [private contractor] to implement the Deepwater program made a complex program more complex, and set the stage for waste, fraud and abuse by effectively outsourcing oversight of the program to the private sector and by creating a conflict of interest for the private sector in executing the program.”
The first three of eight scheduled national security cutters were supposed to cost an estimated $863 million total, but the price tags for each of them have essentially doubled due to a series of unanticipated costs so that now the overall amount is expected to be an eye-popping $1.6 billion. One of the main reasons for the massive cost increases are new post-9/11 specifications for the cutters requiring upgraded weapons systems, increased defenses against chemical, biological and radiological attacks and communications systems that are interoperable with the Defense Department and other homeland security agencies.
Two GAO investigators, Stephen Caldwell and John Hutton, testified to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security in March 2008:
“The new and modernized assets the Coast Guard expects to acquire under the Deepwater Program are intended to be used to help meet a wide range of missions. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard’s priorities and focus had to shift suddenly and dramatically toward protecting the nation’s vast and sprawling network of ports and waterways. Coast Guard cutters, aircraft, boats, and personnel normally used for non-homeland security missions were shifted to homeland security missions, which previously consumed only a small portion of the agency’s operating resources. Although we have previously reported that the Coast Guard is restoring activity levels for many of its non-homeland security missions, the Coast Guard continues to face challenges in balancing its resources between the homeland and non-homeland security missions.”
The first national security cutter was to be delivered in 2006, but it fell two years behind. Then, in early 2007, the Inspector General’s Office released a scathing report on the cutters finding among other things that the Coast Guard started construction on the ships while aware that potential design flaws in their hulls existed, which could result in them being too weak to survive a 30-year service life.
The Coast Guard originally conceived of building 12 national security cutters. But in a bid to promote efficiency through innovation, the number was reduced to eight after officials decided they could outfit the cutters with vertical unmanned aerial vehicles, or predator drones, and use them to expand the range of ocean on which the Coast Guard could conduct surveillance.
Early proposals called for buying 45 new drones at a cost of half-a-billion dollars. Instead, the House Appropriations Committee later concluded in a report that the unmanned aerial vehicle “has not worked as planned, and the Coast Guard has nothing to show for the $114,550,590 it has obligated for this project.”
Further, delays in obtaining new patrol boats have forced the Coast Guard to pay for maintaining its older ones, and Deepwater consumes nearly all of the money the Coast Guard sets aside annually for general acquisition, construction and improvements. “This leaves relatively little funding for non-homeland security assets,” according to a GAO report published last year.
Attempts to modernize eight existing patrol boats led to the discovery of structural damage in their hulls and other problems. The Coast Guard ultimately had to scrap them and acknowledge in 2007 that the effort to refurbish the boats was a failure, but not before spending $96 million, which federal officials sought as a refund from Northrop and Lockheed last year. Media reports eventually surfaced that the Justice Department was investigating certain work conducted as part of the contract, including the national security cutters and the installation of communications systems on new and renovated Coast Guard ships.
Making the public aware of all this bad news hasn’t been easy for overseers. The Congressional Research Service noted last year that the Coast Guard and its contractors had in the past resisted attempts by the inspector general to investigate problems with Deepwater and officials “appeared to have altered briefing slides on the [national security cutter] effort so as to downplay the design flaws to certain audiences.”
The program’s troubles finally led Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen to make a series of frank public statements in April of 2007 admitting problems with Deepwater and announcing reforms that are still underway today, including the removal of private contractors from some management duties:
“We understand all too well what has been ailing us within Deepwater in the past 5 years: We’ve relied too much on contractors to do the work of government as a result of tightening budgets, a dearth of contracting expertise in the federal government, and a loss of focus on critical governmental roles and responsibilities in the management and oversight of acquisition programs. We struggle with balancing the benefits of innovation and technology offered through the private sector against the government’s fundamental reliance on robust competition. A useful balance can be achieved, but it requires due diligence on our part. … Both industry and government have failed to fully understand each other’s needs and requirements, all too often resulting in both organizations operating at counter-odds to one another that have benefited neither industry nor government. … [B]oth industry and government have failed to accurately predict and control costs. We must improve.”
So far, the producers of “Homeland Security USA” haven’t found time to address the Department of Homeland Security’s pricey procurement headaches.