- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2011

Remote forward operating bases set up in rugged areas of the U.S.-Mexico border to help U.S. Border Patrol agents better protect America against armed drug and alien smugglers are plagued with critical safety, security and sanitary concerns that place the lives of agents using them in jeopardy, says the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC).

NBPC President George McCubbin III, a 25-year Border Patrol veteran agent, said the bases - built on a deployment concept developed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan - are “an enormous waste of taxpayer money” and pose “critical safety and security concerns that must be addressed” before work begins on two more sites now scheduled to be set up at a cost of $6 million.

Mr. McCubbin told The Washington Times that bases located in the immediate vicinity of the border unnecessarily expose agents to risks, including attacks from drug cartels now at war in Mexico. He said the 10 existing bases and camps should be closed immediately until safety and security issues are properly addressed.

“The military would never consider operating a forward operating base with the security and safety issues that currently exist in the FOBs operated by the Border Patrol,” Mr. McCubbin said. “Unlike the Border Patrol command, the military command has extensive experience and knowledge in constructing and securing an FOB. Moreover, protecting the troops is a priority for the military command.”

The NBPC, which represents all 17,500 non-supervisory Border Patrol agents, said in a report this month to its members that after consulting with officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the union was “shocked” to learn the bases “do not even meet the basic standards established for temporary migrant worker camps.”

“If the agency was serious about these and they honestly were looking out for their agents in the field, then they would properly stand these FOBs up,” said Mr. McCubbin. He said the agency should be required to build the bases in accordance with regulations designed for permanent government housing and Border Patrol stations, not those designed for temporary migrant worker camps.

“The Border Patrol should be forced to cease operations at all FOBs until the Border Patrol properly addresses the serious safety and security issues that currently exist at the FOBs,” he said, warning that “the unsafe conditions that exist” could lead to an agent’s death.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokeswoman Kerry P. Rogers said in an emailed statement the forward operating bases were established in early 2004 in Tucson, Ariz., and, more recently, in El Paso, Texas, and Yuma , Ariz.

She said they address “remote crossing points that have, historically, been difficult for agents to patrol” due to the vast distances and time involved to access the areas and to reduce the time it takes between detecting and resolving illegal entries.

All the bases, she said, are manned at all times, generally on a volunteer basis, and the agents perform a full range of line watch operations. She said all-terrain vehicles and horse patrol units are deployed and rotated between camps, as trends dictate in the field.

“While FOB construction can vary from location to location, housing generally ranges from trailers to semi-permanent buildings,” she said. “Regardless of the size or location of the camp, agents are provided with sleeping quarters, kitchens, grills, bathrooms, electricity, heat and air conditioning.”

Ms. Rogers did not address questions emailed to her regarding NBPC concerns over security, safety and sanitary conditions.

There are seven permanent bases along the Southwest border and last year’s $600 million in border-security supplemental money approved by Congress included $6 million for two new bases in Ajo and Douglas, Ariz. They will support 32 agents, administrative and living quarters, detention and horse facilities, covered ATV parking, fencing, gates, lighting and security systems, and a helipad.

But the NBPC said that while modeled after the military forward bases, the Border Patrol “clearly does not appear to understand the importance of providing agents with the appropriate facilities, equipment, resources to maintain operational security of an FOB.”

According to the NBPC, the agency violated several federal regulations regarding the construction and design of the bases, including failure to provide adequate sleeping rooms, beds, cots or bunks and suitable storage facilities for clothing and personal articles. The union also said the living quarters had improperly sized windows, an inadequate supply of hot and cold running water, and lacked fly-tight, rodent-tight, impervious, cleanable or single-service containers for the storage of garbage.

The NBPC report said the bases also lacked insect and rodent control and did not have adequate first aid facilities for the emergency treatment of injured persons.

“Multiple agents have experienced various illnesses, to include respiratory infections while assigned to the unsanitary, substandard living conditions provided at the FOBs,” the NBPC said. “This is an insult to the men and women who are assigned to these FOBs.”

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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