Monday, November 29, 2004

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement’s ability to gather and share intelligence data, conduct the investigations needed to guard the nation’s borders against terrorists and enforce immigration law is being challenged by a growing number of ICE supervisors and agents.

Both supervisory and rank-and-file personnel, in numerous interviews, said the Department of Homeland Security agency is overwhelmed by low morale, mismanagement and the lack of a clearly defined mission, and said the lack of effective leadership threatens its ability to defend the United States against a new terrorist attack.

At least two congressional committees are reviewing the accusations and have met with ICE supervisors and agents to discuss the matter.

“Serious accusations have been made and there is a concerted effort under way to determine their validity and, more importantly, find out how they impact the country’s ability to fight the war on terrorism,” said one congressional investigator. “The complaints are specific and widespread. We take them seriously.”

ICE supervisors and agents say they are worried about, among other things, management decisions that have muddled long-standing chains of command; the assignment of patrol agents and inspectors to one agency and investigators to another; and the misuse of computer systems that had been effective for everything from inspections, investigations and data collection to in-house networking and personnel matters.

They questioned whether ICE has sought to maintain the legacy of its predecessor, the U.S. Customs Service, which developed an expertise in smuggling and money-laundering investigations, and said they doubted the new agency is committed to enforcing immigration law, particularly in the nation’s interior, where 10 million illegals live.

Less than two years after ICE was created, discontent among supervisors and rank-and-file agents has spread from quiet chatter in locker rooms and patrol vehicles to open rebellion in its field and regional offices.

Letters and e-mails sent by ICE personnel to members of Congress show that many think significant leadership shortfalls have translated into low morale.

One e-mail delivered to congressional investigators said field agents “desperately require a set of goals that relate to terrorist investigations and protecting our borders,” but because the ICE leadership has failed to accomplish that goal in the 20 months since the agency was created, they have “no respect or confidence in their ability to do so.”

Much of the criticism targets Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, who oversees ICE, and ICE Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads the agency.

The supervisors and agents said the two had done little to help the complicated reorganization of several law-enforcement agencies into a single body, while others said they let the agency’s investigative functions erode, even though ICE is billed as the investigative arm of Homeland Security.

Mr. Hutchinson has said ICE has made “great strides,” despite problems associated with the complex merger of agencies. Mr. Garcia described the transition as “unprecedented,” saying that regardless of a lack of adequate funding for manpower, resources and equipment, he was confident ICE was moving forward.

“It has taken time to find out ICE’s role in preventing a new act of terrorism, where we fit in the overall picture, how we learn and adapt, what tools we need to get the job done, and how to use them more aggressively,” Mr. Garcia said. “But look at the service they have performed despite those uncertainties. We have come a very long way in a very short time.”

But an ICE supervisor who heads a major field office said agents assigned to combat terrorism think the dismantling of Customs has led to a serious breach of national security, one that top department officials have yet to address. He said at a time that Customs and the FBI were seeking to allow a freer flow of intelligence data, Homeland Security “is erecting walls and roadblocks between itself.”

Matthew L. Issman, national legislative vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), which represents 25,000 federal agents in 57 agencies, including those at ICE, said that major “systemic issues and concerns” raised by agents and forwarded to members of Congress show the agency is suffering from a serious morale problem.

Mr. Issman said hundreds of agents transferred from Customs to ICE were “deeply troubled” by the merger and by what they overwhelmingly described as a system that has failed to provide adequate leadership.

In a letter to Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Issman said ICE’s creation had “separated and distanced investigators from the field entities that are on the front lines every day.”

“This is akin to removing the detectives from the police department in your hometown, and creating another distant layer of bureaucracy that separates their chain of command, identity and esprit de corp, and then expects them to interact efficiently as if the new wall was not there,” he said.

In a separate letter, Allen Martin, another FLEOA official, told Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that “morale in the field is at an all-time low and there is a real lack of identity, mission focus and direction.”

Mr. Martin said the ICE leadership had transformed an agency from “a paperless trendsetter in the computer age, back to the Stone Age,” adding that he has “received an increasing amount of letters from field agents claiming the merger is not working at their level.”

He also said the agents are “too scared” to publicly challenge the management, so they write to FLEOA, saying the merger had significantly damaged the ability of former Customs investigators to conduct probes.

In one letter, an ICE supervisor said the agency is “so unwieldy that it’s now an object of laughter — even among some of our most important clients, such as the U.S. attorneys.”

Another letter called ICE “ill-conceived, a Pavlovian response to a problem that Customs never created.”

Mr. Issman also noted that fiscal mismanagement at ICE had resulted in the cancellation of basic- and advanced-training classes and a hiring freeze, adding that although agents “could not buy AA pager batteries in the last few weeks of fiscal 2004 or travel on government business, ICE Detention and Removal officials got a blocking code removed from their government purchase cards so they could continue to rent DVDs for detained immigrants.”

ICE was created March 1, 2003, with the merger of U.S. Customs, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Protective Service. With a work force of nearly 15,000, it is one of the largest law-enforcement agencies in the federal government.

Its mission ranges from terrorist financing, money laundering and illegal arms dealing to immigration fraud, illegal aliens and migrant smuggling. It also is responsible for the apprehension and removal of thousands of criminal aliens and “absconders” in the United States.

Hampered by a lack of adequate funding in fiscal 2004, including significant budget shortfalls this year explained by the agency as accounting problems, the ICE budget for fiscal 2005 is $4.01 billion — up about $300 million. Mr. Garcia, who told employees in a Sept. 3 e-mail there was a need for deeper cuts “to ensure we operate within our budget while continuing to direct resources towards our national security missions,” said the increases would help secure the agency’s role in “ensuring the security of the American people and our way of life.”

Numerous ICE supervisors familiar with the budget process said the new budget has significant deficits built in, but were not eager to talk about the matter, for fear of retaliation.

“I’ve heard nothing but bad things happening to people who speak out,” one supervisor said. “There’s a lot of senior management that wants to keep the lid on people speaking out about the problems. If we’re identified, they could do a number of things to us … and you don’t have any way of fighting it.”

The supervisors and agents noted that the ICE management is made up of former INS officials, including Mr. Garcia, whose failed financial systems were documented almost yearly by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

“Now that same mind-set is being used to run ICE into financial ruin, and when the dust settles after the election, Garcia, Hutchinson, [Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge and others will be gone, and we will be left to rebuild the ruins,” one agent said.

A major area of contention continues to be a May 13, 2003, memorandum of agreement sought by Attorney General John Ashcroft and approved by Mr. Ridge. It moved the nation’s most successful terrorism-related financial crimes task force from U.S. Customs to the FBI.

“If ICE is the investigative arm of Homeland Security, how is it they would have allowed the FBI to take over these important terrorism-related cases without a note of protest?” asked an ICE supervisor, noting that Operation Green Quest, during its 19 months at Customs, made 79 arrests and seized $33 million.

Several ICE supervisors and agents independently cited as an example of the agency’s demise its forced acceptance of a huge backlog of INS cases involving the handling of illegal aliens, known as “bagging and tagging.”

They said two experienced Customs investigators — now at ICE — were pulled off a criminal case to guard for three days an illegal alien until he signed a pledge to show up for an immigration hearing in four months.

“So he signs a piece of paper and leaves, and we all know we won’t ever see him again. We tied up all these resources for nothing,” they said.

Meanwhile, they said, ICE has committed millions of dollars and untold resources and manpower to arrest more than 4,400 people nationwide since March 2003 as suspected pedophiles — fewer than half of whom have been deported as foreign national sexual predators.

“It’s good to get these people off the street, but they’re not terrorists and that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing,” said one agent. “But it’s big numbers and these folks seem to like big numbers.”

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