- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Air and marine operations assigned to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were transferred yesterday to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a decision hailed by rank-and-file agents in both agencies as a positive step in the war on terrorism and the battle against illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

The move, based on recommendations after a lengthy review by officials at the Homeland Security Department, consolidates into one agency helicopters, airplanes and boats dedicated to air and marine law enforcement.

The Office of Air and Marine Operations at ICE had more than 1,000 employees and a fleet of 134 aircraft and 72 vessels, including Black Hawk helicopters, Citation aircraft and numerous “go-fast” boats. The agency maintained 10 branches, two surveillance support centers, 11 air units and 16 marine units across the southern tier of the United States and Puerto Rico.

CBP, which is responsible for managing, controlling and protecting the nation’s borders at and between the ports of entry, maintains 115 helicopters and airplanes, and 102 patrol boats, most of which are used by the Border Patrol.

Led by Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, the CBP has 41,000 inspectors and agents from the U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the entire U.S. Border Patrol, which were merged into a single agency in March 2003.

Earlier this year, Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, noted that ICE, CBP, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration all had air and marine divisions and suggested that Homeland Security consider ways to consolidate efforts where missions and needs overlapped.

“An integrated modernization program could result in cost savings to the government as well as sharper focus on the security mission,” Mr. Cox said during a May hearing. “It also could enable Coast Guard, ICE and CBP air, surveillance and maritime asset operators to achieve other advantages and efficiencies, such as joint training of employees, shared repair and maintenance facilities, and increased communications interoperability.

“It is imperative, in the event of an attack, that there be seamless coordination of efforts among these agencies,” he said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee this year also said “potential redundancies in the areas of air and marine interdiction” had created two separate air and marine operations within ICE and CBP.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge ordered a review to “enhance efficiencies in existing resources.” He said that, because the principal focus of the air and marine division was interdiction, its “natural location” rested more with CBP than with ICE.

“There will be no degradation of the [air and marine] mission, only an improvement in operating efficiencies as the two air and marine elements of ICE and CBP are brought together in one agency,” Mr. Ridge said.

Homeland Security officials said that throughout the transfer, efforts will be made to find efficiencies with aviation and marine operations, locations and acquisition and recapitalization. During the interim, they said, there be no drop in air or marine support to legacy missions in ICE, CBP or the other many agencies served by the air and marine division.

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