Homeland Security

The True Costs of the Wall: Reduced Security

By Paul Rosenzweig
Saturday, March 11, 2017, 1:33 PM

We have written on this blog about the financial costs of President Trump's plan to build a wall on the southwest border. Cost estimates are somewhere north of $20 billion—and if we are going to spend that much money (say $7 billion/year) then something in the DHS annual budget of $53 billion (more or less) will have to be cut. (And let's leave aside the nearly incalculable costs in terms of policy, and human suffering just to focus on cold hard cash.) Now ... it seems ... we know what will be cut—and the result is going to be less American security, not more.

The New York Times is reporting on a draft DHS budget proposal that will cut money from the Coast Guard, TSA and FEMA to pay for the wall. The programs at risk are real programs with real success and value. Here are some of the items reportedly on the chopping block:

Let's start with the US Coast Guard, which faces a potential 14% (!) cut in its $9.1 billion budget. As Politico puts it, here is the Coast Guard is the jack of all trades. Its a military organization; it saves people on sinking boats; and it does environmental work. In fiscal 2016, the Coast Guard intercepted 6,346 undocumented migrants, patrolled 3.4 million square nautical miles and removed 201 metric tons of cocaine and 52,613 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $5.9 billion, spokeswoman Lt. Amy Midgett said. It also responded to 35 oil and 17 hazardous substance incidents, analyzed and investigated more than 13,000 and 1,800 cyber events, respectively, and conducted 139 airborne intercept missions over the Washington area at the request of the Department of Defense. Now, of course not all of that will go away with a 14% cut, but alot of it will. And if the wall is really built then the number of illegal sea-borne migrants is going to increase, not decrease. We'd also lose the Maritime Security Response teams—the Coast Guard's rapid response counterterrorism teams. Sure hope we don't need them!

One particularly notable victim of the cost cutting will be the 9th of the new Coast Guard National Security cutters (the so-called Legend Class). Given that many of the current fleet of cutters are older than the men and women who sail them, cutting a vessel with an expected 30-year life cycle seems especially short-sighted. It is also politically unwise if the cutter is to be built at a ship yard in the home state of the Senator who chairs the Homeland Security appropriations committee!

Next, let's think about TSA. They would lose the program that trains pilots how to respond to an attempt at an armed takeover of the cockpit—because, of course, that's never happened, and can't happen again. I am particularly willing to mock the termination of the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program. After the 2013 Los Angeles airport shootings, VIPR deployments were one of the responses—both to increase security and to reassure the public. Ditto after the Brussels airport bombing. But rest assured, that won't happen again either, I'm sure. Still, if your main source of news tells you that VIPR is a form of mind control, I guess VIPR should be on the chopping block after all.

And as for FEMA—grant programs for preparedness and training are always an easy target. But anyone who actually does emergency response will tell you that training and planning are the key to success in a crisis. Sure hope the string of years without a big hurricane hit continues.

Former DHS Secretary Chertoff was polite in his criticism: “If you are going to look at the mission of D.H.S., in which priority No. 1 is security, you have to take an approach to the budget that balances all the elements of security." I'll be less polite—this proposal is nonsense. It sacrifices real, every-day security programs on the altar of a campaign promise that will not increase security one iota.