GAO's Shoddy Report on Border Patrol Operations on Federal Land

By Janice Kephart on October 21, 2010

The Government Accountability Office, the mandated congressional audit watchdogs, issued a report this week concluding that the Border Patrol needs more timely access and training when operating on federal lands subject to "federal land management laws." Most interesting about this report, from my standpoint, is that the GAO, which generally does an excellent job of twisting bureaucratic arms to obtain information, barely did any useful homework on this piece. While I appreciate the report's conclusion, I wonder at shoddy work at a level I have never seen before in over a dozen years of using and reviewing GAO products, many of which are excellent and highly credible.

My big beef? Look at the information GAO relied upon in issuing its conclusions and recommendations on a politically charged issue that has wallowed too often in hyperbole and lack of substance. The GAO is often relied on to provide such substance. What they did here instead was primarily to rely on hearsay: "GAO reviewed key land management laws, interviewed agents-in-charge at 26 Border Patrol stations responsible for patrolling federal southwest borderlands, and interviewed managers of these lands." Wait a second: this from an agency that told Congress in its 2010 budget request that last year it had 3,141 employees and a budget of over $531 million?

Okay, maybe numbers of employees and budgets do not matter (yet we all know they do), but let me just point out that our tiny Center does not operate such a scale. Even so, I issued a report today on a similar topic pertaining to a Senate bill waiting floor action (passed out of committee in July) that would change a public use designation to a wilderness designation for about 25 miles of New Mexico border. The report, "A Gift to the Drug Cartels: Will New Mexico Become the New Arizona?", revolves around the same issue addressed by the GAO report: the effect of federal land-use designations on the operational access of the Border Patrol to do its job in borderlands. My report relies on:

  • key land management laws;
  • agreements among federal agencies;
  • Customs and Border Protection statistics, budgets, and expenditures obtained from congressional inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security;
  • PowerPoint presentations, internal reports, and incident reports from the departments of Interior and Agriculture, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests;
  • Hidden camera footage highlighted in our mini-documentary series from over a year and a half worth of activity on federal lands including those both on desert and mountain terrain owned by both the departments of Agriculture and Interior.

Thus, no matter what conclusion the GAO came to on this issue, talking to land managers and Border Patrol agents-in-charge without looking to determine if their commentary matched the empirical information is fishy, at best. If Congress wanted a survey of middle-tier government managers and a look at some laws, all the congressional offices had to do was get staff lawyers to review the laws themselves, and hire Zogby to conduct a poll. Come on, GAO, if I can do it, so can you.