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MISSION CREEP: NM footprint grows: ‘We’ve up-armored’

Second in a series

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is based in the nation’s capital, but its footprint is all over New Mexico.

Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency has maintained a presence on the state’s border with Mexico for more than a decade. But it wasn’t until 2011 that DHS planted permanent roots in Albuquerque.

That’s when another DHS agency, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ditched a 36,000-square-foot office it rented on Randolph Road SE in Albuquerque and moved into a gleaming new 72,000-square-foot building at the Mesa del Sol development, seven miles southeast of Downtown.

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Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico, told the Journal that as Homeland Security’s physical presence in Albuquerque has expanded, the number of agents working the state has grown, too. Abar declined to say how many HSI officers are based in New Mexico, citing security concerns. But the number has “more than quadrupled” in the past three years, he said.

“We’ve up-armored,” Abar said. “That means putting more people and more resources on the ground. When we looked at New Mexico from an agency standpoint, we realized we could do quite a bit of good but we needed to put more resources and more agents on the ground, and over the past three years that’s what we’ve done.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s mission in the state has also grown beyond the narrow counterterrorism and disaster relief mandate outlined in the 2002 federal law that established the department.

Homeland Security Investigations agents are now working with local police all over New Mexico, aiming to become an integral part of domestic crime fighting in the state. HSI officers are deployed in the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, as well as at police departments in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Farmington, Aztec and elsewhere across the state, Abar said.

“We are working side-by-side, literally – we are entrenched with our state and local counterparts,” Abar said.

Abar declined to say whether Homeland Security officers helped Albuquerque police respond to the unruly March 30 public demonstrations protesting the killing of James Boyd, who was shot by Albuquerque police March 16. But Abar confirmed that HSI officers are helping local police investigate gang activity in New Mexico, as well as track missing and exploited children, break up pickpocket rings and even sleuth for stolen and fraudulent Native American art.

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“Native American culture is very important here in New Mexico, and we want to preserve that,” Abar said.

HSI isn’t just working criminal cases; it is also trying to prevent them. Last June, HSI’s Albuquerque field office announced it would meet with adult dancers and strip club owners to train them about the dangers of sex trafficking and how to recognize it. Agents are planning seminars and workshops at retirement centers to inform older residents about lottery, IRA and jail fraud schemes. And the agency last month announced a program called iGuardian that will send DHS officers into schools and nursing homes, where they will teach young and old alike about the dangers of Internet predators.

“We want to secure the Internet and make sure the individuals on it understand the pitfalls, and that they can become victims,” Abar said.

DHS role questioned

Homeland security and law enforcement experts interviewed by the Journal said they were alarmed by the scope of HSI’s involvement in local policing.

“The last thing in the world you want is a Department of Homeland Security involved in a day-to-day basis with traditional and state and local law enforcement,” said Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in a Journal interview. “It’s not their role or their function, unless it’s related to terrorist activity.”

Ridge acknowledged that understaffed police jurisdictions working to solve local crimes might be tempted by offers of federal assistance. But he also suggested that local cops may be trading some of their autonomy in the bargain.

“I would be wary if I were a local law enforcement official when DHS says, ‘I’ll volunteer to help you here, or do this, or oversee this equipment,’ ” Ridge said, adding that Homeland Security is taking on roles traditionally reserved for local police or the FBI.

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“I can’t believe Homeland Security investigators are involved in local crime,” Ridge said. “If they want to be involved and invested in local crime, they ought to apply for a position in the local police force.”

Dan Klein, a retired Albuquerque Police Department sergeant, said he’s noticed the increasing federal police presence around the city.

“It seems like Homeland Security is taking more of a local law enforcement role,” Klein told the Journal . “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but at least here, we are moving more toward a national police force. Homeland Security is involved with a lot of little things around town. Somebody in Washington needs to call a timeout.”

Abar said the concerns are new to him.

“I really haven’t heard that criticism,” he said. “I think people are afraid the federal government will come in and step on their rights and walk over them. We do work with our state and local counterparts, and the closer we work with our communities, the more the communities will know what the federal government is doing. Our roles are very clearly defined.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship. They help us, and we use each other’s resources and at the end of the day we get more done for the community.”

Abar also said Homeland Security’s national jurisdiction helps local police solve cases that might spill across jurisdictional borders.

“APD can go as far as it can go within their jurisdiction, but I can go anywhere in the country,” he said.

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Eric Garcia, deputy chief of the Albuquerque Police Department, told the Journal in an email that Homeland Security Investigations has one agent working full time with the department. The agent is assigned to the property crimes unit and assists with “various policing duties, including background checks.”

“The partnership between APD and HSI is great,” Garcia said. “We work alongside them in our criminal interdiction unit, and they are an asset to our property crimes initiatives. We also work alongside them on child exploitation cases.”

Garcia rejected the notion that DHS has become too involved in local policing.

“I don’t believe they are taking on too active of a role,” Garcia said. “We are collaborating with HSI as a force multiplier and we are sharing resources.”

‘Fusion centers’

Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its HSI affiliate, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection offices, aren’t the department’s only operations in New Mexico. The federal agency also helps sponsor a DHS “fusion center” at the New Mexico National Guard complex in Santa Fe.

The fusion center is officially dubbed the New Mexico All Source Intelligence Center by the Department of Homeland Security.

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The first 37 fusion centers, while not expressly authorized in the 2002 law establishing the Department of Homeland Security, nonetheless opened for business in 2006 under the direction of then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Today, no fewer than 78 fusion centers dot the American landscape from coast to coast.

MYERS: NM secretary of homeland security

MYERS: NM secretary of homeland security

Gregory A. Myers, New Mexico’s secretary of homeland security and emergency management, described the state’s fusion center during a Journal interview.

“It’s a conduit to pass information from the feds down through to the locals, and from the locals back to the feds,” said Myers, a retired Air Force colonel who assumed the state homeland security post in 2012. “They were created to help connect the dots from the 9/11 attacks, to be able to get these disparate pieces of information and make connections that tie these things together and be able to prevent future terrorist activities.”

In 2012, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded a two-year investigation of the nation’s fusion centers. The findings were discouraging.

“The subcommittee investigation found that the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever,” the report said.

Moreover, many of the nation’s fusion centers (New Mexico’s wasn’t cited) spent money that seemed to have little to do with coordinating intelligence with other law enforcement or emergency management agencies, according to the report. The centers spent millions on flat-screen televisions, sport utility vehicles, hidden cameras and other gadgets.

Most reporting from the fusion centers back to DHS headquarters was not about terrorists or possible terrorist plots, but about other criminal activity – mostly arrest reports pertaining to drug, cash or human smuggling, the congressional report found.

The inquiry also reviewed FEMA’s distribution of hundreds of millions of tax dollars to fusion centers around the country. FEMA could not accurately track the disbursements, estimating that it had sent them somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion.

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The National Fusion Center Association, comprising multiple national law enforcement groups, condemned the report as misleading and reliant on outdated information.

“The report does not address the significant benefits that fusion centers provide to state, local and tribal law enforcement,” the association said in response. “Additionally, the report incorrectly asserts that a majority of the information or intelligence released by fusion centers is untimely, inaccurate and of little use. This assertion is false.”

Ridge told the Journal that when he was Homeland Security secretary from 2002 until 2006, he envisioned eight fusion centers dispersed across the 48 contiguous states, as well as one in Alaska and one in Hawaii.

“I think fusion centers are a great idea,” he said. “I think the proliferation of fusion centers makes no sense. My vision then was to start with building fusion centers that covered four or five states for all hazards, natural weather events and law enforcement sharing. They’ve gone much beyond that.”

However, Ridge defended the centers as conduits for all kinds of information related to homeland security threats – and not just terrorism.

“It would be foolish to build that capacity and limit it exclusively to dealing with terrorism,” he said.

NM fusion center

Myers told the Journal he has reined in the investigative powers of the New Mexico fusion center and its employees since assuming leadership of the state’s Homeland Security department.

“I’ve taken it in a little bit different direction,” Myers said. “They started out as more of analytical body and then went into a kind of investigative role. I moved them back into an analytical role because the folks that were in place when I came here, although they had some law enforcement background, they didn’t’ have badges, so there was no real reason why I should have them out doing casework.”

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Myers said these days, the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management focuses more on the second part of its name than the first.

“Law enforcement is the primary lead agency on counterterrorism and criminal activity,” Myers said. “We provide support and through the fusion center try to provide analysis to assist them in doing that.”

The New Mexico homeland security department received about $28.6 million from the federal Department of Homeland Security in 2014. The money was used to help equip local law enforcement agencies around the state, as well as provide emergency management and urban search and rescue operations.

“Our guiding principle is in trying to build capability that we can deploy not only across the state but within the region as well, should there be something significant that requires a lot of additional assets that needs response,” Myers said.

Wendell Oliver, a retired Virginia police officer who has written two textbooks on homeland security and teaches on the subject at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, told the Journal fusion centers seemed like a good idea in theory. But Oliver said he has a hard time defending their cost and reach in light of their track record.

“They have not solved or prevented any terrorist acts in the United States, so I would have to put that in the negative category,” Oliver said. “But there is also no evidence they have necessarily done any great harm – other than waste money.”

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