Senate Democrats yesterday challenged President Bush’s decision to hire 210 new Border Patrol agents for next fiscal year, saying he reneged on a promise to add 2,000 agents when he signed the intelligence overhaul bill in December.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Bush proposal, submitted as part of the Homeland Security Department’s $41.1 billion budget, “ignores the stark reality of the resources needed to secure the homeland.”
At a meeting of the Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, Mr. Byrd said the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act signed Dec. 6 by Mr. Bush authorized the hiring of 2,000 new agents in each of the next five years, and in a letter that day to Congress, the president called the bill “an important step in strengthening our immigration laws by … increasing the number of Border Patrol agents.”
Democrats have made the Border Patrol funding an issue in the past month, arguing that it shows that the president’s priorities are misplaced — both on border security and on the broader issue of immigration reform.
Last month, House Democrats tried to block a Republican-backed bill to crack down on illegal immigrants’ use of driver’s licenses and limit asylum claims, arguing that Mr. Bush should first fund the promised number of Border Patrol agents as a way of proving that he is serious about homeland security.
Mr. Byrd said the intelligence overhaul bill also authorized the hiring of 800 new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and approved funding for 8,000 new detention beds for illegal aliens.
“Yet, when the president submitted his budget request two months after sending that letter, virtually no funds were requested for any of these activities,” he said. “At the same time, the president’s own terrorism experts are extremely concerned about the threat terrorists pose to our borders.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was “not happy” with the president’s decision, noting that 200 of the 2,000 new Border Patrol agents were supposed to be assigned along the U.S.-Canada border.
Mr. Leahy, also an Appropriations homeland security subcommittee member, said Mr. Bush had failed to heed what he described as a congressional mandate to substantially increase the number of agents along the northern and southern borders.
“The administration is ignoring the call for substantial increases in staffing for the Border Patrol,” he said.
The intelligence overhaul bill was part of Congress’ response to the September 11 commission, which found deep institutional failings and missed opportunities by U.S. authorities in stopping the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The senators’ concerns fell to Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol. Asked directly whether 200 new agents were enough to protect America’s homeland, he said, “Yes — given the right combination of agents and technology, if we work smarter and do a better job.”
Mr. Bonner told the subcommittee CBP is developing a “comprehensive and unified system of electronic surveillance,” which will be critical to the Border Patrol’s ability to increase apprehensions and establish greater control of the border.
The $84 million program, known as America’s Shield Initiative (ASI), will enhance sensor and video surveillance capabilities; integrate new, state-of-the-art surveillance technologies; and increase the Border Patrol’s ability to work with other law-enforcement agencies, he said.
“Expanding the portion of the border covered by electronic surveillance, integration of new components and technologies and improved agent support equipment via the ASI program will provide the Border Patrol with increased ability to meet its and CBP’s priority mission threats,” he said.
Newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff later told the subcommittee he has ordered a comprehensive review of the department’s organization, operations and policies to see what changes might be necessary “to better enable us to identify, prevent and, if necessary, mitigate and respond to attacks on our homeland.”
Mr. Chertoff said the review would include a look at the department’s structure, operations, policies and missions to ensure they are targeted, effective and efficient.
“Our philosophy, our decision-making, our operational activities and our spending must be grounded in risk management as we determine how to best organize to prevent, respond and recover from attacks,” the secretary said.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also has been “disappointed” in the president’s decision not to fund 2,000 new agents. He asked Mr. Bush in a letter last month to fully fund the increases authorized in the bill.
The letter was signed by all five House Republican leaders on the intelligence bill: Mr. Sensenbrenner and Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois; Duncan Hunter and David Dreier of California; and Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.