‘Homeland Security USA’: The Outtakes
Posted on Jan 9, 2009
By G.W. Schulz, Center for Investigative Reporting
The report pointed to a 2007 incident in which customs officials suffered a major network outage at LAX that halted operations for hours and disrupted the travel of thousands, stranded on the airport’s tarmac and elsewhere. An aging IT infrastructure apparently exacerbated the problem.
In another segment of the show, Border Patrol officials inspect vehicles at the southwest border and execute a drug bust while cameras are rolling. Multiple large packages of marijuana spill out of the spare tire and gas tank of the car as border agents grin broadly nearby. Later at Washington state’s border with Canada, 77 pounds of cocaine are found stuffed inside baby diapers after Shapiro’s protagonists grow suspicious of a Ford Explorer.
“The money that funds narcotics also funds terrorism, and the more of that we can stop, the better,” one agent tells America following the seizure.
But when reporters Lowell Bergman and Andrew Becker teamed up for a project with Frontline/World and The New York Times last May, they found that there were roughly 200 open corruption investigations at three major homeland security components with border responsibilities: Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The journalists (one a Center for Investigative Reporting co-founder and the other currently a staff reporter) profiled nine customs officers and border agents who’d been arrested between 2005 and 2008. Two of them, brothers named Raul and Fidel Villareal, disappeared for several months while under investigation before being captured in Tijuana last October and charged with smuggling Mexicans and Brazilians into the United States, using a government-issued vehicle to transport illegals to San Diego and laundering money.
Another man, Michael Gilliland, admitted receiving between $70,000 and $120,000 in bribes to wave cars piloted by smugglers through his inspection lane unmolested. A former Marine who joined the Department of Homeland Security is believed to have taken as much as $80,000 in such bribes. Others sprung detainees from ICE detention facilities.
One FBI agent told Becker and Bergman: “There’s more pressure on the other side of the border from the smuggling organizations to elicit the help of a corrupt border official. The pool of individuals who are susceptible to corruption has grown.”
Becker then reported for the Times in November that police arrested a veteran customs inspector in Del Rio, Texas, for allegedly helping to smuggle 3,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States over five years. Media outlets in Texas all but missed the story because the press release announcing his indictment sent out by the regional U.S. attorney’s office neglected to mention the man was an employee of the Department of Homeland Security. But a standard note at the bottom disclosing that the department’s inspector general was involved in the probe provided a crucial tip. The customs officer also is accused of accepting $30,000 to falsify a passport application.
As producer Shapiro resides in an editing room melding together rapid-fire segments of brilliant television that portrays law enforcement technology as infallible and witless criminals and terrorists as sure to be caught, others have filed Freedom of Information Act requests, studied little-noticed congressional reports and interviewed disenchanted whistle-blowers to show that while the multibillion-dollar Department of Homeland Security does protect America from the world’s dark side, it also persists as a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars and a revolving door for government executives who turn their civil service jaunts into lucrative private-sector careers.
U.S. News & World Report in 2005 described the seamless transition for top homeland security officials to corporate positions. Just before Tom Ridge took over as head of the new agency, two of his top aides joined a lobbying firm that represents major homeland security contractors, including Boeing and BearingPoint. At least six others with big titles at the department, including Ridge himself, who eventually joined the board of a firm developing security technology, made similar moves.
We probably won’t learn it from “Homeland Security USA,” but the department is continually battered by corruption, including reports in 2007 that former FEMA officials charged the federal government double what their private consulting firms paid for subcontracted employees during the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, rates they insisted were “industry standard.”
In fact, the first episode didn’t touch the department’s heavy reliance on private contractors, which made up a whole 40 percent of its activities last year.
Then there are the department’s widespread problems with mismanagement. In one extraordinarily ironic case, homeland security officials had to totally scrap a $52 million computer system that was supposed to better enable it to manage an annual budget of approximately $50 billion. The department had originally intended to spend $229 million creating the failed eMerge2 program. There was “little to show for it” despite the amount already poured into the system, according to one Government Accountability Office report.
Like the once wildly popular reality show “Cops,” Shapiro threatens to create the false impression that police are not vulnerable to corruption or breaking the law to enforce it and that the law enforcement lobby in the United States always acts in the best interests of the American people and their taxpayer dollars.
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