The Obama administration's 2009 strategy for curtailing drug trafficking along the Southwest border includes plans to deploy surveillance, detection and inspection technologies, but offers little detail about coordinating those efforts with existing border security programs.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy released on Friday the 2009 National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, an update to a 2007 strategy for preventing illegal drug trafficking across the border with Mexico. The updated version includes plans to develop technologies that support Southwest border counternarcotics efforts.
"The U.S. officers and agents who defend the Southwest border require state-of-the-art technology to counter the efforts of traffickers, who have proven to be creative and adaptable in their attempts to evade law enforcement," the report said. "The federal government needs to commit resources to the ongoing effort to research, develop and deploy technologies that support the counternarcotics effort."
The technologies on tap include systems that can detect, track and classify threats along the land and maritime borders; wide-area surveillance systems for detection, identification and tracking from the coast to beyond the horizon; inspection technologies to detect narcotics, bulk currency and illegal firearms in cargo; and tools that will allow law enforcement officers to perform border inspections of vehicles and vessels.
The strategy will be funded through fiscal 2010 budget requests and the economic stimulus plan, which supports broader efforts to reduce drug trafficking and secure the Southwest border, including $642 million from the Justice Department, $96 million from the Homeland Security Department, $95 million from the Defense Department and $450 million from the State Department. While the plan doesn't detail budget figures for the technology components, some key investments that could help fund the initiative are $100 million for nonintrusive inspection systems and $100 million for DHS' Secure Border Initiative, both included in the stimulus plan, and $10 million in the president's fiscal 2010 budget request for the Customs and Border Protection Bureau's automated license plate reader program. The latter will contribute to a national database that contains the license plate numbers of criminal suspects, so they can be more easily spotted and arrested as they cross the border.
"Technology is absolutely essential to anti-drug efforts on the border, both to interdict drugs headed north from Mexico, and to interdict cash and weapons going south into Mexico," said an official with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who asked to not be named. Although some technology will be provided to state and local authorities, the majority of funding is designed to support front-line Customs and Border Protection personnel, the source added.
Homeland Security and Justice helped develop the strategy, though it makes little mention of how the administration will coordinate with federal agencies that already have border programs in place, to ensure efforts to deploy technologies don't conflict or overlap. For example, DHS began work on SBInet, the technology component of its Secure Border Initiative, in May, installing networked towers armed with sensors and cameras to monitor a stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona for illegal crossers. The strategy does not explain how -- or if -- SBInet's IT systems and applications will be used to support the efforts to curtail drug trafficking.
"There are some areas that [administration officials] need to nail down with more detail -- one being the coordination of the drug strategy with the existing homeland security strategy," said David Bodenheimer, a partner at the Washington law firm Crowell and Moring, where he heads the homeland security practice. He also wrote a paper for the Journal of Homeland Security on technology requirements for border protection.
"Many of the technologies that are identified are being worked on at DHS, the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies; they're the subject of research and procurements. The concept is right; now there just needs to be a game plan for implementation that leverages the technology advances in one area, such as homeland security or intelligence, to support the drug policies."
Bodenheimer emphasized the need to integrate computer systems to detect an array of contraband, including drugs, large amounts of currency, radioactive materials and weapons.
"That is a more complex challenge that will require a more complicated system than rolling out a series of technology solutions, but the Homeland Security Act requires that factors of commerce and economics and efficiency be taken into account as part of the homeland security mission; those factors therefore need to be weighted here," he said.
DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the administration's strategy to prevent drug trafficking from Mexico complements the department's broader efforts to secure the Southwest border.
"SBInet is an important component of the broader border security plan, whose goal is to have agencies and the administration work together in collaboration; to not to have any silos," Kudwa said. "SBInet is an asset that we at DHS bring to the table."