It’s Time for a National Border Security Strategy

September 17, 2014

Texas Governor Perry’s recent comments regarding ISIS penetrating the United States’ porous southern border should give the ongoing immigration and border security debate a much-needed reinvigoration. The simple fact is that we do not know who and/or what is crossing the border. The growing threat from terrorist groups, as well as the continued nefarious actions of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), requires the U.S. government to revisit its strategic goals on the border and reshape its current approach based on those goals.

Currently, there is no singular national strategy for border security, a fundamental flaw in the effort to manage this enduring national security problem. Without the benefit of such a strategy, federal departments and agencies are rudderless, lacking strategic direction from the Executive Branch with respect to securing the nation’s borders. A clear border security strategy, nested within the objectives laid out in the National Security Strategy, would provide a means of rectifying these shortcomings.

Understanding the Threat

The 2010 National Security Strategy, in addressing threats, notes:

Transnational criminal threats and illicit trafficking networks continue to expand dramatically in size, scope, and influence – posing significant national security challenges for the United States and our partner countries.

And yet, none of the legislative or administrative border security solutions proposed thus far will counter these threats without first understanding the scope of the threats. The threats from terrorists and TCOs are evolving in complexity. As the administration and Congress continue the policy of delayed leadership, these complexities mount, making solutions even more challenging and ultimately impact the national security of the United States.

The threats facing the United States within the international border environment are real, dynamic, and multi-dimensional; those who wish us harm – terrorists, criminal organizations, and nation states – remain flexible and act without regard to our laws. These adversaries are not only able to exploit the gaps in our laws, border security infrastructure, and response capabilities, but also in our policies and our own failure to implement existing law. In short, our adversaries are quicker to adapt to the changing border security environment than we are at identifying and correcting our own security shortfalls.

Although there are potential threats present at each border, the danger posed by the accumulation of those threats (TCOs, terrorists, adversarial nation states) is particularly acute along the Southwest border. Competing drug cartels are engaged in an unprecedented inter-organizational conflict over smuggling routes into the United States. Furthermore, with billions of dollars in operating capital, TCOs are capable of buying, corrupting, building, and/or coercing the necessary freedom of action to counter and respond to law enforcement efforts to curtail their activities. TCOs have spent decades refining the transportation routes to bring illicit material (drugs) into the country and to engage in human trafficking.

TCOs have also realized that these routes are more valuable than for just transporting drugs, that others will pay high sums to use these routes for their own purposes. The additional funds from transporting people and other material do not impact the transportation of their main product, meaning any revenues received are pure profit. On this basis, there is little downside to transporting people or dangerous materials into the United States (product is product),and it thus provides a proven conduit for terrorist organizations to enter the United States undetected.

There is speculation that the TCO risk/reward analysis would prevent them from partnering with a terrorist organization, as such a relationship would heighten the pressure they might face from the United States government. However, at least one publicly acknowledged incident —the attempted assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States by a suspected agent of the government of Iran — seems to contradict this argument. This case suggests the possibility of a worrying, if ad hoc, relationship between the Iranian government (or, more specifically its intelligence service) and a Mexican cartel to manage the transportation of the Iranian operative into the United States. It also highlights the need for heightened awareness of the narco-terrorist nexus within the Mexican cartels and the possibility that these relationships are growing stronger as the development of a true border security strategy continues to be delayed.

TCOs, like terrorist organizations, are more like hydras than snakes. They cannot be destroyed by decapitation. There is a ready supply of lieutenants to take the place of any captured or killed leader. The rewards of a leadership position, tangible or otherwise, far outweigh the risk of capture or death, as has been demonstrated by the Zeta cartel in Mexico and al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Removal of one leader may lead to infighting, especially within TCOs, as evidenced by the rising violence in Mexico since 2006, but this in no way impedes the TCO business model. The Foreign Terrorist Organizations FTOs with members closely aligned with and loyal to their ideology seem to be less susceptible to this power struggle. With recent congressional comments regarding possible connections between FTOs and TCOs, our border security situation seems ever more in need of an overhaul.

Tactical Failures

One of the most glaring border security failures occurred prior to World War II in France. The French, like the U.S. today on the Southwest border, identified that they needed a border security plan to protect the country against a German invasion. In order to achieve that goal, they developed a strategy to stop an advance from the most likely avenue of approach. The Maginot Line, an immoveable border security apparatus, was aimed at blocking any invasion mounted from the east. In response, the German Army simply bypassed the defenses, invaded Belgium, and captured Paris some six weeks later. The Maginot Line, with all of its resources, was at once a tactical success (preventing an attack from the east) and a strategic failure (failing to defend against an adaptable and intelligent adversary).

There were other military consequences of the Maginot Line’s construction as well. While it was considered state-of-the-art, the fixed infrastructure was too costly to maintain and led to other parts of the French defenses being underfunded. This linear approach that focused on a tactical solution to the strategic problem of the German advance prevented the French forces from having the ability to surge to where the threat actually was.

Similarly, the traditional response to increased illicit border crossings into the United States has been to build a linear defense along the physical border of the United States. Yet, much like the Maginot Line, this linear approach continues to be an investment in failure, as it does not take into account the threat’s capability to adapt, ultimately hindering our ability to employ new strategies and tactics quickly.

Illegal groups have always found ways to bypass countermeasures, not only in the United States but alsoinhyper-vigilant states like Israel. These illegal groups are nimble, can quickly identify weakness, and move to exploit the weakness by employing tactics such as ultra-light aircraft and tunnels while simultaneously continuing to exploit heavy traffic areas at all ports of entry. Controlling one’s border 100% is not realistic and will be so costly that it is prohibitive. Even in those areas where lethal force is employed against illegal border crossers such as in Israel, there are still successful attempts to cross. Similarly, even the East German Stasi security apparatus was not 100% successful in preventing illegal crossings to the West.

Without clearly defined metrics however, there is no real way to verify that the border is secure. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created and then quickly abandoned the Border Condition Index, an index that combined many non-security related indices. It was determined that the subjective nature of its criteria (for example, economic development) had little to no bearing on the actual security of the border. Historically, DHS has also used the number of apprehensions to define border security. This particular measure is problematic in that it can be interpreted as being “good” regardless of whether apprehensions increase or decrease. Increased apprehensions show progress (more people caught), as do decreases in apprehensions (fewer people attempting). Clearly defined metrics are not subjective and cannot be used to show a “win” no matter the outcome. Statistics can be manipulated and therefore, solid intelligence supporting an understanding of the actual situation on the border will be the best indication of a secure border.

Strategic Solutions

The National Security Strategy further includes the requirement to “deny hostile actors the ability to operate within our borders.” It points to the need to “maintain effective control of our physical borders…disrupt and dismantle transnational terrorist, and criminal organizations…[and] support a homeland that is safe and secure from terrorism and other hazards.” In this context, it recognizes that efforts to secure the borders must extend beyond the borders themselves:

Stability and security in Mexico are indispensable to building a strong economic partnership, fighting the illicit drug and arms trade….Combating transnational criminal and trafficking networks requires a multidimensional strategy.

By viewing border security as a multi-dimensional issue, the paradigm shifts, encouraging an effort to look at challenges and solutions beyond the border, a critical element of a strategy of security in depth. The center of gravity for the United States’ border problem is therefore not at the border but rather, it is the source nations from which illicit traffic emanates.

Situational awareness of border activity is key. Only through intelligence collection can we truly understand the situation and how to deal with it. Reducing, as much as possible, the overall number of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border will aid in our clarity of activity at the border and assist in identifying border crossers that pose significant challenges to U.S. national security. Those with no economic or survival incentive to make the deadly trek through Mexico or across the sea are more likely to stay in their home country, which will ease the task of law enforcement agencies in identifying criminal actors and those looking to do the United States harm, such as ISIS. This will deny TCOs and terrorists the ability to hide and move with illegal immigrants, taking away a vital “camouflage” that has aided these groups for decades.

While any investment in other countries such as those in Central and South America could be costly, there will still be significant savings in the reduction of people being detained, tried and removed from the United States. Estimates show that the average cost to detain and remove an illegal immigrant is $20,000. With over 400,000 apprehensions in 2013, that equates to $8 billion in taxpayer cost. Conversely, the United States Agency for International Development spent roughly $80 million in Guatemala, or one percent of the cost of apprehensions. Of the monies spent, a mere $2 million went towards the security sector, and $17 million for economic development. Clearly, even an incremental increase in foreign assistance will pale in comparison to the amounts proposed by Congress for additional manpower and infrastructure along the border.


The U.S. government can and must do more to disrupt illicit activities before they reach the U.S. border. This must start with a clear understanding of the threat and must consist of a two-prong strategy that integrates operations at home and abroad. At home, the administration must develop an integrated national border security strategy, to be implemented at the federal and state level, which coordinates resources and provides clear direction to all relevant government agencies. This should include the creation of national TCO and FTO fusion centers aimed at coordinating state and local governments while also providing an accurate picture of evolving threats to federal agencies. The strategy should also implement adaptable tactics as well as techniques and procedures; identify clearly defined metrics; and ultimately ensure that objectives are incorporated into supporting complementary department and agency plans.

Overseas, the government needs to reengage with our partners in the Western hemisphere and beyond to deal with threats before they reach American soil. Concurrently, the strategy must also seek to assist foreign governments in addressing the underlying economic situation that often drives participation in transnational illegal activity. Changing the risk calculus of potential illegal border crossers affords a possible economic upside while also increasing the United States’ ability to deal with threats and illegal activity before they reach the borders.

How would the development of such a strategy look in practice? As with all national strategies, any border security strategy must emanate from the Executive Branch and clearly assign responsibilities. In taking this international engagement approach, the Congressional focal points are the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, not the Homeland Security Committees. Accomplishing a long-term border security construct will require that the Foreign Affairs Committees and the Appropriations Committees provide authorization and funding, respectively, for the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development to develop the requisite programs for economic development in the source nations. Congress must also provide additional resources to the intelligence and security agencies to identify and counter threats more effectively prior to reaching the United States. The Homeland Security Committees must introduce authorization bills focused on restructuring the Department of Homeland Security to better synchronize its intelligence apparatus with national, state, and local authorities and to develop a more robust international investigative presence.

Implementing this strategy will require the full commitment of the executive and legislative branches of government at the national and state levels. Both must be supportive of the strategic end state of securing the United States from illicit border trafficking – regardless of the motivation. This is a long-term, strategic construct that cannot materialize in short order but will pay long-term dividends. Continuing on the current path of linear, tactical approaches to border security will leave the United States vulnerable. The Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz opined: “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” Congress and the Administration must focus on winning the war.


Tom Leonard is a retired Army officer and War College graduate; Joshua Katz is a former Army Ranger and CIA operations officer. Both served as senior policy advisors to the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.


Photo credit: cesar bojorquez