Not with a bang but a whimper: Obama’s DHS shuts down aerial surveillance along border

Not with a bang but a whimper: Obama’s DHS shuts down aerial surveillance along border
A Texas-based UH-72 helicopter assigned to Operation Phalanx prepares to lift off for the Mexican border. (Image: Texas.gov)

Barack Obama would be going gently into that political night even if Hillary Clinton had won. But she didn’t, and as the few remaining grains of sand in his adminstration’s hourglass begin to dribble down, he is wielding his pen and phone perhaps for the last time: His Department of Homeland Security has quietly shut down Operation Phalanx, an aerial surveillance program that intercepts drugs and illegal crossings along the Mexican border.

Rep. Henry Cuellar , D-Texas, vows to challenge DHS’s move, saying Congress provided “full funding” for 2017. Cuellar, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and the Homeland Security Subcommittee, is drafting a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson protesting the shutdown.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Cuellar challenged Johnson last February when DHS reduced Phalanx’s flight operations.

This time, Cuellar is seeking reinforcements from three fellow Texans, all Republicans: Sen. John Cornyn , and Reps. Mike McCaul and John Carter . Cornyn sits on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittees on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security and the Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security panel. McCaul chairs the Homeland Security Committee in the House and Carter chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

McCaul, who referred questions to the Homeland Security Committee, previously called on DHS to “develop a strategy to gain operational control” of the border.

“Over the last several years, Congress has provided billions of dollars to secure the borders, but without an end goal in mind,” McCaul said in a statement.

McCaul has authored legislation “to require the [DHS] secretary to gain situational awareness through the use of sophisticated technologies and other means, giving our border agents the ability to predict changes in illegal activity. “

DHS, which did not respond to Watchdog’s request for comment by deadline, asserts that illegal crossings have declined along the Texas-Mexico border. But U.S. Border Patrol reports show that apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley rose 27% in fiscal 2016 versus fiscal 2015.

In the smaller Laredo sector, Operation Phalanx accounted for 10,559 apprehensions and 4,007 “turnbacks” from March 2012 to December 2015. Phalanx was credited with seizing 12,851 pounds of narcotics during the period.

Barack Obama established Operation Phalanx in July 2010 via executive order. The Army National Guard was authorized to provide up to 1,200 soldiers and airmen along the 1,933-mile southwest border to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a DHS agency.

Using advanced UH-72 helicopters, Phalanx flight crews generally consist of three National Guardsmen — two pilots and a sensor operator — and one Border Patrol agent. Southwest border states of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico provided the bulk of Phalanx personnel from their local Guard units.

In addition to Texas National Guard manpower and resources dedicated to Operation Phalanx, the Lone Star State has committed nearly $1.7 billion in taxpayer funds to border enforcement since 2005.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to appoint more robust leadership at DHS, so Operation Phalanx could be back in business by January.

Read more by Kenric Ward at Watchdog.com.

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”

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