A 'Specific, Credible, Yet Unconfirmed' Threat: The Border After 9/11

Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning that there was a “specific, credible, yet unconfirmed” threat of a “terrorist” attack in New York and Washington D.C.. This is the permanent state of things on the U.S.-Mexico border. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 has produced many reports that speak to this reality.

Todd Miller 9/14/2011

Over the weekend, the Department of Homelands Security (DHS) issued a warning that there was a “specific, credible, yet unconfirmed” threat of a “terrorist” attack in New York and Washington D.C. In New York City everything became hyped-up and the security apparatus came out full throttle. After seeing the roving Counterterrorism unit of the NYPD on the streets clad with combat helmets, bullet-proof vests, and carrying long automatic firearms, I wondered if this were the permanent state of things in the country, if there were always a “specific, credible, yet unconfirmed threat.” This feeling is particularly sharp on the U.S.-Mexico border where the border enforcement apparatus escalated its presence dramatically after 9/11, building off strategies it began in the mid-1990s.382Yes, there actually is a Border Patrol tank.

Douglas, Arizona resident Tommy Bassett describes life on the border, over the last 10 years or so, as being “like the lobster in the boiling pot.”

“First you see a couple Border Patrol agents go by,” Basset says. “Then you start seeing Border Patrol four wheelers. Border Patrol agents on bicycles. Then you see the Border Patrol tank. And the drones and the helicopters and the fixed-wing aircraft. Pretty soon you see the Border Patrol and other federal agents carrying M-16s. And military hardware. And laser sites. And at some point you kind of think something’s wrong. You wonder - should I be afraid?”

In the book “Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide,” border scholar Peter Andreas writes that border policing has “some of the features of a ritualized spectator sport,” that is a reflection of the “performance and audience-driven nature” of the politics of border “security.” Analyst Tom Barry, director of the Center for International Policy’s TransBorder project, refers to this Andreas metaphor in the introduction to its report, "Policy on the Edge: Failures of Border Security and New Directions for Border Control." Barry says that the “secure the border” mantra has a rallying cry that energizes constituencies, “catapults politicians to office and produces a steady stream of Fox News appearances for prominent border security hawks.” This, Barry concludes, diverts the attention away from the real systematic problems that are “producing the border crisis.”

Both Barry’s critique and Bassett’s quote encapsulate much of the information present in the many “homeland” and “border security” reports produced for the 10th anniversary of 9/11—"Policy on the Edge" being but one. One great thing about the anniversary is the quantity of information it produced. What follows is my attempt to synthesize some of the information offered in these reports, to provide links, and offer some research data. Of the many wars that the September 2001 attacks spawned, oddly one of the least paid attention to is the escalation of militarization on the U.S.-Mexico border. Here is how bad it's become.

Let's begin with an investigative report from The Washington Post called "Top Secret America." The report says that a top-secret world created by the government after 9/11 “has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it.” It’s key point is this:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. In other words, this thing is huge, confusing, and an employment juggernaut. Undoubtedly this “amorphous” world contains many facets of the border/immigration enforcement apparatus.

383Times Square, New York City, September 11, 2011


Some of this border enforcement apparatus, and its further rise to prominence, is broken down by the Migration Policy Institute in a report called "Through the Prism of National Security: Major Immigration Policy and Program Changes in the Decade since 9/11." This report details the massive growth in budget and “manpower” in immigration enforcement. It’s full of useful statistics that peg numbers to the growth:

  • Between 2002 and 2010 Homeland Security spending went up from $19.5 billion to $55.3 billion. And this was through a recession.
  • From 2004 to 2010 DHS personnel increased from 181,875 to 230,000. This figure doesn’t include those employed under contracts that the report estimates (maybe even conservatively) to be 200,000, almost the amount of employees in the department itself.
  • In 2010 the $11.5 billion budget of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within DHS that includes the Border Patrol, is more than double the $5 billion allocated in 2002. Employment in CBP has increased by more than 40%, from 41,000 in 2004 to 58,575 in 2010. And all signs point to a continuation of this increase.
  • Within CBP the Border Patrol has been growing at even a faster clip. In 2010 Border Patrol had 20,558 agents, more than double the approximately 10,000 agents in 2005.
  • The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget more than doubled between 2002 and 2010—from $2.4 billion to $5.74 billion. ICE, of course, is in charge of domestic immigration enforcement. Their employment has increased from 14,410 in 2004 to 20,134 in 2010.



All together, a lot of people’s jobs depend, both directly and indirectly, on a “border crisis.” The report also documents key policy shifts starting with:

  • The Homeland Security Act of 2002 tasked the newly formed DHS with achieving “effective control of U.S. borders,” and the expansion of a “zone of security” beyond U.S. borders. I wonder how historians will view this.
  • The Secure Border Initiative - a 2005 policy framework that is still in effect whose goal is “operational control of the border” through a combination of fencing and technology. SBInet was the $30 billion tech branch of this. Although DHS cancelled this program when they contracted out to the Boeing corporation in January 2011, a new version to create the so-called “virtual fence” is in the works, and companies385 These chairs represented the almost 3,000 killed on 9/11, many of them immigrants. are salivating at the possibilities of contracts (see the next report below). The Secure Fence Act of 2006, which still continues, mandates the construction of 700 miles of fencing on the southern border.
  • The REAL ID Act of 2005 wasn’t just about driver’s licenses and identification cards, it also said that DHS can waive any laws to ensure the expedited construction of “barriers and roads” along the border.
  • Deportations have increased 134% from 165,168 deported in 2002 to 387,242 deported in 2010. Which, of course, continues to increase—see these previous blog postings.
  • Detainees have increased from 202,000 in 2002 to 363,064 in 2010. The average daily detainee population has increased from 19,922 to 31,020.



Another report is a border enforcement monograph of the 9/10/11 Project by the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council. The report, sponsored by military contractor Raytheon, details some of private industry work in border enforcement. In the report they give a list of companies who have made “substantial investments in innovative products, services and solutions to advance the land, sea, and air border security mission.” To give an example of a few:

  • Leading the charge, of course, is Raytheon whose product Border View was built exclusively for the “border security environment.” Raytheon’s ad in the report says “Border Security agents can’t be everywhere at once.” Then it asks “Or can they?” They claim that there technology is designed to “detect, identify and classify threats before they can do us harm.”
  • Lockheed Martin – offers mobile surveillance technology, tunnel detection, ultra-light aircraft, and a “suite of biometric capabilities.”
  • FLIR Systems – a world leader in thermal infrared sensors. And there are plenty more companies jumping on the Homeland Security bandwagon.


Some of the other challenges that remain to strengthen “border security,” according to the 9/10/11 report, have the typical militaristic ring, which is the new border jargon. “Expanded domain awareness,” “technical interoperability,” “segmentation,” are all essential and the enemy, or the cause of border violence, they say, is an “adaptive adversary.”

384In memory of Carlos La Madrid, killed by the U.S. Border Patrol in March 2011.

“In the end,” the report concludes, "the U.S. is faced with an adaptive, changing threat environment that calls for the best use of varied technologies, in multiple layers, to protect the borders and those who patrol them.”

However, in the "Policy on the Edge" report the Center for International Policy critiques the very essence of the 9/10/11 report. It says the term “border security” only gained prevalence in the past decade, in fact it was Homeland Security that “conceived” the term. Besides the sustained critique, the report brings in a drug war analysis that is not necessarily present in the other reports. Barry writes that border security demands are now “couched in threat assessments about spillover violence, narcoterrorism and the drug war.”

All these reports point to one thing—there is either claim of, or an allusion to, a “specific, credible, yet unconfirmed” threat. This has become the permanent state of affairs on the southern border. Perhaps all of this might have as much substance as Department of Homeland Security Cologne.


Read more of NACLA's Border War blog at nacla.org/blog/border-wars, and follow it on twitter, @NACLABorderWars.


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