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Committee grills Defense, Homeland Security on border security

U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, R-3, said he was concerned by what he sees as a “lack of a real long-term strategy” on the Southwest border. (Cronkite News Service photo by Stephanie Snyder)

WASHINGTON – Pentagon and Homeland Security officials assured a House subcommittee Tuesday that they can continue border security despite a reduction in the National Guard from 1,200 to 300 soldiers, who will focus on support for aerial border surveillance.

That drew skeptical questioning from Arizona Reps. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, and Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, who accused the agencies of a lack of urgency over border security and said they should push for more funding for border operations.

Quayle said he had “concern over the lack of a comprehensive strategy on the use of National Guard troops on the border and the lack of a real long-term strategy.”

And he was not alone. The Homeland Security Committees’ border security subcommittee questioned whether the planned withdrawal of National Guard troops from the Southwest border by the end of the year would hurt border protection initiatives.

But Customs and Border Protection Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello said border security will be maintained with an updated strategy that focuses on sharing information and integrating all involved partners, such as the Defense Department, the Mexican government and state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.

“It’s going to be very dependent for us in communities along the Southwest border to engage the residents’ communities of interest, the business communities where they have trade with Mexico and their security regimes,” Vitiello said.

“When we do make this equipment available, we’ll know exactly where to put it and we can get ahead of the risks and minimize the vulnerabilities if they still exist,” he said.

Despite Vitiello’s assurances, and Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Stockton’s claim that the relationship between Defense and Homeland Security is the strongest he’s seen, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he doubted that enough state and local enforcement agencies were being included in the conversation.

“They’re not going to include the (state and local) folks that I just mentioned that should be included in there,” said Cuellar, ranking member of the subcommittee. “They should at least get input from the state and local folks … instead of one agency saying, ‘This is what’s good for overall border strategy.’ They should include everybody from the very beginning.”

Committee members also repeatedly brought up the “ad hoc” deployment of guardsmen to the border starting in 2006 to relieve Department of Defense troops and to allow time to boost Customs and Border Protection presence there.

“There is a ramp-up and ramp-down period and you can’t just automatically deploy the number of troops that is called for at any given time,” Quayle said of the ad hoc deployments.

In response to Vitiello’s claim that Customs and Border Protection receives “an enormous amount” of funding, Gosar challenged all the witnesses on the proposed border security budget.

“We’ve only had operational control of 873 miles of a 2,000-mile border,” Gosar said. “How in the heck can you not be asking for more? That bothers me even more.

“To say that we’re going to live operationally with the president’s budget – that’s absurd. This is absolutely absurd,” he said.

Gosar said the lack of funding combined with bureaucratic delays in protecting residents of border communities is “incomprehensible.”

“Tell my ranchers and land owners along the Southern border that it’s a secure border,” he said. “Give me a break. You ought to be demanding more resources and telling the story like it is.”

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