Improve data sharing between customs, immigration units: DHS IG

Existing IT systems are inadequate for sharing intelligence information between the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) units in the Homeland Security Department, according to a report from DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner.

The widely anticipated, 175-page report recommends that CBP and ICE be merged to improve operations. DHS officials testified at a House subcommittee hearing Nov. 15 that they considered merging the two large agencies, but rejected the idea because it would cause more bureaucratic delays.

'The time and attention that it would take to restructure these two organizations under one figurative head would divert critical resources away from where our focus must be'securing the border,' Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at DHS, testified to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight.

Among the findings in the report are that shortcomings in IT systems are contributing to the units' lack of coordination.

CBP's and ICE's primary means of sharing intelligence is the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), according to the IG's report. However, the system was not designed for that purpose, and many CBP personnel lack access to retrieve critical information entered into the system by ICE agents. Therefore, Customs agents, especially those in the field, are not receiving important intelligence.

'Furthermore, because the data system was not designed as an intelligence tool and does not highlight trends or detect anomalies, intelligence analysts often are unaware of the information it contains and must hunt through the entire system to retrieve information needed to 'connect the dots,' ' the IG report said.

Skinner cited the example of the pre-9/11 'Phoenix Memorandum,' written by an FBI agent, that noted that a large number of people with suspected terrorist links were enrolling in U.S. flight schools. The memo was 'lost' in the FBI's IT systems and not acted upon before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because the systems were not designed to push intelligence out to field agents.

'Just as in the FBI's case, CBP's and ICE's dependence on TECS could similarly result in lost or undisclosed intelligence,' Skinner wrote in the report.

Other IT-related findings in the new report include:
  • CBP managers believe that making the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (U.S. Visit) program an independent entity outside CBP control was 'a bad decision,' Skinner wrote. The Border and Transportation Security directorate has done a 'terrible job' developing U.S. Visit to meet CBP's operational requirements. As a result, U.S. Visit is poorly integrated with CBP's requirements, the report said.

  • The creation of regional intelligence centers to focus on the intelligence needs of both ICE and CBP field operations in those regions 'may be a very effective and efficient means of conducting intelligence analysis and producing intelligence products,' the report said. The centers would work best if they have ICE and CBP agents working collaboratively in the same location.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer for Government Computer News' sister publication Washington Technology.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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