Homeland Security: Border Protection

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Border protection is a critical pillar of homeland security. It keeps dangerous people and materials out of the country before terrorists can even get into a position to attack. In other words, it is preventive in nature-and thus represents an optimal approach to homeland security policy, as my coauthors and I argue in our new Brookings book, Protecting the Homeland 2006/2007.

Border protection should not be principally viewed as a literal defense of the nation’s perimeter. It is not tantamount to the creation of a moat around American borders. Rather, it is a set of efforts that exploits the fact that people and goods are relatively easily monitored when they arrive at checkpoints. In other words, movement across borders allows spotlighting to occur. To be sure, some border protection functions represent something closer to the direct physical protection of borders-most notably, the efforts of the border patrol along the long perimeters of the United States, as well as some activities of the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense. But the spotlighting role is even more critical. Its failure is what allowed the 19 September 11 hijackers to enter the country. Similarly, the nation’s inability to know accurately what goods are coming across its borders have much more to do with holes in the official inspection process-that is, with the spotlighting function-than with the weaknesses of our national walls.

Done right, border security activities can offer additional benefits beyond the homeland security sphere, meeting another one of our four recommended guidelines. Digitized and computerized borders can allow more dependable and rapid movement of people and goods in and out of the United States. They can also provide better knowledge of where ships and goods are when in transit. That in turn translates into, among other things, a greater ability to prevent or respond quickly to other dangers such as piracy and ship accidents that can afflict trade and travel. This should be the goal of tighter border protection; we must avoid the risk of borders turning into chokepoints. Homeland security efforts should reinforce, not compete with, economic competitiveness.

America’s geography generally helps in the effort to monitor borders and to use them as a means of funneling goods and routing people through places where spotlighting is possible. But the country has two long land borders that remain very difficult to guard. And they are far from the only main challenge facing this domain of homeland security. This testimony considers a number of relevant problems, as well as the general matter of aviation security, which is in part a matter of border protection. Its conclusions, in short, are that there is no magic bullet for keeping illicit goods and people out of the country, and no easy analytical way to deduce what level of increased inspection or monitoring capacity would be sufficient for national security. Ongoing efforts since 9/11 have been headed in the right direction, however, and the gradual increase in capacity for monitoring borders as well as goods should continue. In addition, some additional policy steps such as much more uniform standards for drivers’ licenses are called for.