Guard might do border recon
By Sig Christenson
The San Antonio Express-News (TX), June 4, 2009
A border security proposal drafted by Gov. Rick Perry would put 600 soldiers in 'reconnaissance platoons' to scour 20 remote areas for drug and immigrant smugglers, part of a call-up of 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to full-time duty.
In his latest in a series of anticrime border initiatives, Perry wrote in an April 2 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the patrols would 'provide an immediate increase in the boots on the ground.''
Napolitano so far has made no recommendation to President Barack Obama.
Perry considers border security a federal responsibility, spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said. He could call out the Guard on his own, but Texas would have to pay for it. The $135.6 million it would cost the first year isn't included in the state's recently adopted $182.3 billion budget for 2010-2011.
Perry's letter suggested the patrols would be prudent, given Mexico's drug-gang killings and kidnappings in recent years, a handful of which have occurred in Texas although in border cities rather than rural areas.
'It is my recommendation that the federal government adopt a proactive, rather than reactive, approach in addressing the threat from spillover violence by immediately increasing the security along the U.S.-Mexico border with an overwhelming uniformed patrol presence on the ground, in the water and in the air,' he wrote.
But he defined 'spillover violence' in a way that includes smuggling. He referred to 'crimes occurring in Texas as a direct or indirect result of the criminal enterprise activities of the Mexican organized crime cartels and their associates.'
Whatever Obama's answer, the proposal is good politics for a Republican governor running for reelection in a conservative state, said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
But, Jillson said, it's 'not good Republican Party politics for the longer term,' because if the state GOP 'continues to be seen as favoring militarization of the border. That is likely to repel Hispanic voters.'
'I think that we can be quite certain that the governor will resolve this conflict in favor of his short-term political needs,' he added.
Asked about it, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a likely gubernatorial challenger in next year's GOP primary, didn't say if she backed Perry's idea.
In a prepared statement, she pointed to her support of a 500 percent increase in Border Patrol agents since 1993 and called for 'a balanced strategy' to strengthen the agency and boost resources for local law enforcement 'on the front lines.'
Perry's latest border initiative doesn't have a name and awaits the outcome of talks between homeland security and the Pentagon.
But as with former President George W. Bush's 'Operation Jump Start' and Perry's 'Operation Wrangler,' it would put Texas Guard soldiers, many of them combat veterans, into a border-security role, and some would be armed.
Texas Guard spokesman Col. Bill Meehan said 'use of force' rules haven't been spelled out.
The decision to arm troops depends on their mission and possibly their location, Meehan said, but he declined to say when, where or under what circumstances Guard members would carry weapons.
Perry supported Jump Start, which began in 2006, but didn't sign a letter last year from other border-state governors asking Congress to extend the program.
Cesinger, however, said Perry spoke to then-President Bush 'and in no uncertain terms said that we would like to keep those National Guard troops on the border.'
Obama said in March that he'd decide if Guard deployments 'would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense.'
Homeland security spokesman Matt Chandler said there's no deadline for a decision. But if one comes, deployments likely would occur under the 20-year-old National Guard Counter-Drug Program, which allows Guard troops to support federal, state and local law enforcement but forbids them from making arrests.
Texas has about 200 GIs in that program today nearly as many as California and Arizona combined.
The deployments would be paid for by a recently passed war supplemental budget that includes $350 million for counter-drug operations, most of which goes to the Pentagon. In April, border state governors including Perry sent a letter asking top congressional leaders to 'fully fund' the program.
But Perry's three-page letter to Napolitano, written a few weeks before the governors wrote to Congress, suggested she was skeptical of the need for so many soldiers.
He mentioned that Napolitano had pointed out in a March 26 phone call 'that the latest uniform crime report (UCR) data demonstrated a decrease in violent crimes in the Texas border counties.'
Homeland security reported violent crime was down in 2007 from 2003 in El Paso, Del Rio, Laredo, Rio Grande City, Roma, Presidio, Progreso, Hidalgo, McAllen and Pharr.
It was up slightly over the same period in Brownsville and Mission, and more than twice the 2003 mark in Eagle Pass.
Perry wrote that he was 'proud of the decrease in crime in our border counties … and we are also pleased that, since 2005, there has been a 52 percent reduction in the rate of illegal alien arrests.'
However, he added, 'Much more needs to be done … as the Mexican cartels have seemingly unlimited resources and constantly seek ways to penetrate our nation's border.'
He included a detailed plan for the border mission with his letter, but said it shouldn't be made public. The Texas Guard's Meehan said he didn't know how the 'border reconnaissance platoons' would operate, but noted similarities to Operation Wrangler.
That mission involved 604 Texas Guard troops working in 'security platoons' in a law enforcement capacity along the Rio Grande and elsewhere in the state. It began Jan. 22, 2007 and quietly ended less than two weeks later.
Perry told Napolitano his request 'should not in any way be construed as an effort to militarize the Texas border,' but the letter's language and past operations had a martial tone. A Perry spokesman in 2007 described Operation Wrangler as a 'rolling surge,' vocabulary lifted from the Bush administration's offensive in Iraq.
The governor also encouraged people to become the eyes of Texas' border with a monthlong test in late 2006 of eight cameras linked to a Web site. They logged 27.9 million hits, a few arrests and lots of news coverage.
Asked if the initiatives had a political purpose, Cesinger said: 'The governor's focus has always been and continues to be securing the border and protecting Texans.'
Publicity wasn't the point, she said, adding: 'If people are noticing that it is working, we can't blame them.'
Perry sends letter proposing border recon missions
The Associated Press, June 4, 2009