WASHINGTON — Lawmakers gathered today to discuss how to use military technology for border security as the United States shifts its roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Texas legislators showed particular interest in acquiring defense equipment for the state’s border with Mexico, touting their recent travel to the Middle East and inviting federal officials to visit their home districts.
With American troops leaving Iraq and an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan expected, advocates for military technology on the border said it is an attractive option because it could save taxpayer money, could complement the U.S. Border Patrol’s human resources and has proven successful before.
“One of the things that I kept asking was, ‘Hey, what about the equipment? What’s going to happen with the equipment over there?’” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who recently visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Because we paid billions of dollars.”
Cuellar spoke ahead of a hearing on Tuesday of the House Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, where he is the ranking member. He wants to know what overseas equipment will become available and how to get it to the Texas-Mexico border — not just for the cost savings but “so we don't have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
In testimony and a question-and-answer session, officials from the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security detailed that process, as well as how much equipment has already gone into domestic groups’ hands. Defense equipment worth almost $500 million has gone to federal, state and local agencies in fiscal year 2011 for counter-terrorism and “counter-drug” activities, according to Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Stockton.
More defense technology on the border could help Border Patrol agents, though more “boots on the ground” are still needed, said Mike Rosen, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican on the subcommittee who, like Cuellar, recently visited the Middle East.
And the use of defense technology has already been successful in some cases, said U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., the chairwoman of the subcommittee. The use of Predator drones is one example, and other “surveillance equipment used successfully in theater may provide valuable tools to assist Border Patrol Agents in gaining and maintaining operational control of the border,” she said in a statement.
Texas representatives’ interest in putting more military equipment on the border is not new, and for some the process has moved too slowly. Back in March, for example, McCaul urged a “ramp up” to the process. “I don't understand why this takes so long and you have a crisis going on down there,” he said at the time. “Everyone knows it.”
Cuellar tempered their call for equipment, however, by saying in an opening statement today that despite “tough budgetary times,” all defense technology “may not be well-suited for border security purposes.”
The missions of the Defense and Homeland Security departments differ, Cuellar said, “and we must be careful not to militarize our borders.”
Discussions are likely to continue, however, as both Cuellar and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, invited officials back to their districts.
It is not just the technology that interests Jackson Lee, she said, noting that returning Iraq and Afghanistan service members will have expertise in some of the defense technology that could land in Texas.
“I’m not so inclined to ignore this talent … and let it dissipate when we are confronting threats unknown,” Jackson Lee said.