Union asks IRS to bring contracted work back in-house

The bill states that nothing in the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 provisions that govern job competitions -- typically aimed at considering whether to outsource federal work that is classified as commercial in nature -- should prevent agency heads from "evaluat[ing] the benefits of converting work from contract performance to performance by federal employees in appropriate instances."
NTEU said the language, which applies to all agencies except the Transportation Security Administration, provides opportunity for agencies to reassess the decision to contract work out in cases where contractors' performance has raised serious quality concerns.
More than half of NTEU's members are employed by the IRS, and union president Colleen Kelley recommended three programs for contracting in competitions: a commercial bank "lockbox" program that has raised questions on the security of taxpayer receipts and information; an information technology modernization program that has been cited for high vendor costs; and mailroom functions that the union claims have drawn complaints from employees for poor service.
IRS spokesman John Lipold said the agency does not generally respond to public statements like the one released by NTEU, adding the agency has achieved significant savings through work competitions, including those that resulted in in-house teams retaining the competed work.
"I am not aware of any IRS efforts planned or under way to move work under contract to in-house performance," Lipold said.
Corresponding language in the 2006 Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 1815) establishes criteria for giving special consideration to contracts that "have been determined by a contracting officer to be poorly performed due to excessive costs or inferior quality."
The Senate-approved version of the 2005 Veterans Health Care Act (S. 1182) goes further, stating that of the $15 million the department would be allowed to spend running public-private job competitions, half would have to go toward studies of work already being performed by contractors. That bill has not yet been brought before the House for a vote.
Federal employee unions have vigorously fought the Bush administration's competitive sourcing program, which encourages agencies to let contractors bid on thousands of federal jobs, and the new language in the Transportation-Treasury bill and Defense authorization and veterans bills could indicate a new front in the ongoing battle.
"We will be identifying projects, as we did at the IRS, where the presence of contractors is resulting in higher costs, poor quality service, or privacy concerns for taxpayers," NTEU's Kelley said.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which backed the language in the bills, said in December, "Contractors acquire and retain almost all of their work without ever competing against federal employees and all too infrequently against other contractors. Taxpayers would benefit significantly if federal employees received opportunities to compete against contractors who have become accustomed to big sole-source contracts."

Judge delays personnel rules for civilian defense workers

Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006
A controversial new personnel system affecting nearly 5,000 Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers and about 700,000 civilian defense workers elsewhere is on hold at least until March 1.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., got both sides to agree to the delay Tuesday during a hearing on a lawsuit filed by unions to block the system.
“It’s an extremely important case, and it is extremely complex,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said during a three-hour hearing.
The labor unions claim the National Security Personnel System would violate federal law by undercutting the workers’ right to collective bargaining. The Defense Department says it needs the rules, which would make it easier to hire, fire and discipline employees, to fight the war on terror effectively.
The Metal Trades Council is one several affected unions at the shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Council President Paul O’Connor called the delay good news.
“It shows me that there are enough people paying attention that something’s not right here,” O’Connor said. “We’ll see what happens.”
O’Connor has said previously the new system would empower the Defense Department to make policy changes that would override existing labor contracts.
“We have lost the ability and the right of collective bargaining. . . . This is just as big to us as BRAC,” he said, referring to the nationwide round of base closures that Portsmouth barely survived last year.
A new personnel system at the Homeland Security Department was delayed when a judge ruled in August that its system undermined collective bargaining rights. The government has appealed.
Joseph Lobue, a lawyer for the Justice Department, told Sullivan that case is “very different” from the Defense Department one.
Unions comprising the United Department of Defense Workers Coalition sued in November to block the Defense proposal.


Performance Anxiety
Jan/Feb 2006
By Trudy Walsh

Other stories on Performance Anxiety are:
• Performance Anxiety - Results-Based Pay: Springer heralds the winds of change
Results-based pay unnerves many, empowers others
Whichever way it blows, change is definitely in the wind for the federal pay system. The government is looking to abolish its 56-year-old General Schedule system in favor of something sleek and modern, befitting a 21st century workforce.
But the shift from the tenure-based GS pay system to one based on performance could shake the federal government to its core. Proponents of a merit-based system see it as a long overdue way to make government more efficient and effective. Opponents—including many federal employees and union representatives—worry that pay for performance will breed favoritism, shatter job security, lower morale and erode the spirit of teamwork on which public service is based.
The Bush administration last year proposed the Working for America Act, which would mandate a radical departure from the pay system that’s been in place since the late 1940s. The WFAA, now in draft form, will require part of federal employees’ pay to be based on their work performance, not their longevity.
Under the current General Schedule system, established in 1949, federal employees serve a certain length of time at one grade level and are promoted to the next grade level. Private industry abounds with stories of mail clerks becoming vice presidents within a few years, but such rapid career progress has been impossible in the federal sector.
If enacted, the WFAA will change all that, as well as the very fabric of the federal employee review process. Managers will write their employees’ appraisals, and pay raises will be based on these appraisals—a common practice in private industry, but a novel undertaking for the federal government, where raise percentages are mandated governmentwide by Congress. Now, under the GS system, a star performer receives the same 3.1 percent raise as the more ordinary employee in the next cubicle.
Already more than 90,000 federal employees are in some form of performance-based pay system, including the Senior Executive Service, which has been under such a system since January 2004. Government agencies that use alternative pay systems include the IRS, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Government Accountability Office, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Aviation Administration, among others. Alternative pay systems are also being implemented at the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Department.
Few will dispute that the General Schedule system is clunky and out-of-date. Comptroller general and GAO chief David M. Walker recently described it as “broken.” When the GS pay system was established, 70 percent of government workers were clerical employees who did routine filing and typing. The Classification Act of 1949 was considered the latest in scientific management principles, according to an Office of Personnel Management report published in 2002, A Fresh Start for Federal Pay: The Case for Modernization. The GS system made position rather than performance the foundation for pay. “Most of the work was so cut and dried that employees had scant opportunity to distinguish themselves from their peers,” the report said.
Much has changed since 1949. Now most federal employees are highly skilled “knowledge workers.” They keep airplanes from colliding in mid-air, protect the nation’s shores and send people in orbit around the Earth. Among their ranks are surgeons and nuclear physicists.
“It’s a brave new world for everybody, including the human resources department,” said Brad Bunn, deputy program executive officer for the National Security Personnel System. The Defense Department is “on the cusp” of implementing the NSPS, which will establish a new set of personnel rules for DOD, including a performance-based pay system. “The GS system was a one-size-fits-all system, designed for a different era,” Bunn said.
The federal government has to bring labor market considerations into the compensation structure, too, Bunn said. The GS system puts limits on starting salaries. “We often lose the highest-quality candidates because we can’t offer competitive salaries,” Bunn said. “We’re not under any illusion that we can compete with Microsoft. But with NSPS, we can attract better-quality candidates.”
Helena Inman, NIST’s performance management program manager, agrees that the need to stay competitive in the labor market was a major factor in adopting a pay-for-performance system. NIST has successfully been using pay for performance since 1987, when it was authorized as a demonstration project by OPM, Inman said. The standards agency had to attract and retain an unusually talented workforce.
“We have three Nobel Prize winners in physics” who could work just about anywhere they wanted, Inman said. NIST had to be able to offer them incentives that would make them want to stay. Now they wouldn’t go anywhere else, she said.
One reason why the pay-for-performance experience at NIST has been so positive is that the initiative was “a grassroots effort,” Inman said. “NIST did this all on our own.” The agency worked with its own human resources staff, mathematicians and statisticians to build algorithms for the pay-for-performance system.
But some observers are concerned that the change to a merit-based pay system won’t go so smoothly across the government. The tenure-based GS pay system is deeply entrenched in the federal culture. “Everybody not getting the same pay increase? That’s a subject foreign to public service,” said Glen Bjorklund, deputy director for administration at FDIC.
Agency officials who think they can “pop in pay for performance, hit plug-and-play and it will work” are in for a shock, said Steve Nelson, director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“It’s such a large cultural change. It takes at least three to five years to implement,” Nelson said. “To think you’ll do it in one or two performance cycles is overly ambitious.”
CULTURE CHANGE. GAO, which has been using a pay-for-performance system since 1991, is also switching to more market-based compensation ranges, said Susan Kladiva, special assistant to the comptroller general. A relatively small agency with a fairly homogeneous workforce, GAO still had to deal head-on with the staff’s anxiety about their pay. The agency had numerous meetings between executives and employee groups. GAO’s Walker held televised “chats” on performance compensation. Employees could watch on closed-circuit television or on their computer desktop, and e-mail questions to Walker during the chat.
Pay for performance “is going to be a major, huge, culture change,” Kladiva said. Agencies “need to approach it in that vein because it is radically different” from the GS system.
Some federal employees, as well as representatives of the employee unions, worry that giving managers and supervisors so much power over an employee’s fate will allow favoritism to seep into the system.
The GS system, for all its flaws, allowed women and minorities to flourish in federal jobs, said one federal employee who requested anonymity. “The problem with pay for performance is that sexism and racism still exist,” she said. “The old system had some built-in ways to keep the system fair. But pay for performance is going to make favoritism the deciding factor.”
Government is going to have to address that suspicion, MSPB’s Nelson said. The MSPB took a governmentwide survey a few years ago about how much federal employees trusted their supervisors. “The level of trust was low,” Nelson said.
Officials at agencies that are successfully using pay-for-performance systems say that training has been the key to keeping the system fair.
The FAA, for example, which has been transitioning to a pay-for-performance system since 1996, provided classroom training for managers at its Center for Management and Executive Leadership in Palm Coast, Fla. The agency used printed media, interactive technology and webcasts to educate both employees and supervisors on the new system. Now 82 percent of all FAA employees are under merit-based systems.
Ventris Gibson, assistant administrator for human resources management at the FAA, found the move from a GS pay system to a merit-based system “not difficult.” In fact, Gibson embraced the new system. “My pay should be based on my performance,” Gibson said. “I believe that in my very core. We owe that to the taxpayer and the nearly 600 million people who fly annually.”
At the FDIC, every manager and supervisor received training when the agency phased in its pay-for-performance system. The agency went through a personnel roller coaster ride during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the height of the banking crisis, the FDIC workforce was about 22,000; today it numbers 4,700. The agency has been experimenting with merit pay and pay-for-performance programs since the late 1980s, Bjorklund said. Now everyone at the FDIC is covered by some form of pay for performance except the presidential appointees.
“We didn’t develop a specific, canned training program,” but perhaps it’s something the agency should consider, Bjorklund said. “We probably need less training and more listening.”
Because supervisors are only human, DOD has built in a system of checks and balances in its review process, DOD’s Bunn said. Each review will be reviewed by “another set of eyes,” looking for what Bunn called “troubling trends. Some managers might be hard raters. Another manager might be much more generous.”
At GAO, the Human Capital Office and the Office of Opportunity and Inclusiveness analyze preliminary appraisal results for inconsistencies or aberrations before evaluations are finalized, Walker said.
“No performance analysis system in the history of the world is perfect and none ever will be,” Walker said. “So you need to have systems and safeguards in place to maximize consistency and minimize the possibility of abuse.”
If managers are trained in performance goals and those goals are clearly set at the start of the performance period, “the results are what the results are,” said Howard Weizmann, president of the private-sector council of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit research organization.
Most employees don’t like surprises when it comes to their performance evaluations and pay. At the FAA, through communication and training, employees knew what to expect, said Hank Price, an FAA spokesman. “What we were told was going to happen, happened. Now we know how we’re meeting our goals.”
The IRS has had about 8,000 managers under a pay-for-performance system since September. The new system emphasizes providing quantifiable objectives in assessing employee performance, said Beverly Ortega Babers, the IRS’ chief human capital officer. When linking pay to performance, evaluation factors need to be “real concrete items, not what appear to be subjective notions,” Babers said. At the IRS, employees are rated on performance measures such as fair and equitable treatment of taxpayers and customer satisfaction.
Experts are divided on the effect pay-for-performance will have on the morale of federal employees. Some observers say it will raise only the morale of the high performers, bringing down the spirits of the average employee. Union officials say it will destroy the federal government’s spirit of teamwork by shifting the focus to individual performance.
“It may have negative effects on the morale of average performers as well as poor performers,” said Jason Shaw, associate professor of management at the University of Kentucky. “Seniority-based systems are built around average performers. ... If you’re giving large raises only to those performing above average, you could see negative effects on morale.”
On the other hand, people get upset when they see others getting rewarded who aren’t pulling as much weight as everyone else, Weizmann said. “Everybody can identify the star performers and who needs help. What creates cynicism is the kind of system where it doesn’t matter what I do, or what my neighbor does—we all get rewarded the same.”


Border incident raising tensions in U.S., Mexico

Chicago Tribune
MEXICO CITY - A confrontation between sheriff's deputies and uniformed drug traffickers along the Texas border has intensified concerns about forays into the United States by Mexican soldiers while heightening bilateral tensions over border violence.
U.S. officials are demanding that Mexico fully investigate an incident Monday in which several men wearing military-style uniforms and carrying military-style weapons helped suspected marijuana traffickers escape into Mexico.
Mexican officials deny that real Mexican soldiers were involved. But the incident has refocused attention on reports that Mexican military and police personnel have crossed onto U.S. territory at least 216 times in the past 10 years, along with concerns about how drug dealers may be obtaining Mexican army uniforms.
"It was no doubt that it was Mexican military, because I've seen them and I've dealt with them all my life down here," said Arvin West, sheriff of Texas' Hudspeth County, whose officers filmed Monday's incident using cameras he bought to back up his allegations.
West said his deputies have caught Mexican soldiers crossing the border "to buy Snickers (candy bars)." But he said Monday's clash was among the more serious incidents, in which soldiers helping drug smugglers "are sitting there waiting with their machine guns to make sure (the drugs) get back OK."
The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Antonio Garza, sent a diplomatic protest to the Mexican government Wednesday, demanding an explanation and questioning Mexico's commitment to combating violence along the border.
Local authorities in Texas and U.S. Border Patrol officials have been even more strident in their criticism, saying the incursions by Mexican soldiers are common and worrisome. They also have condemned federal officials for not taking the matter seriously enough.
In turn, Mexican officials have questioned the motives and timing behind the U.S. complaints. Some believe the incursion reports are being overblown by proponents of a bill in the U.S. Congress to build more border fences to keep out Mexican laborers. The U.S. Senate is scheduled to debate the measure as early as next month.
Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security secretary, also characterized the reports as "overblown" and "scare tactics" last week. He said a number of incursions were "innocent" mistakes by Mexican soldiers who did not know they crossed the border, which is barely marked in more remote places.
While Mexico's Defense Ministry is investigating Monday's incident, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox asserted that the suspected soldiers were actually traffickers wearing fake uniforms. Foreign Ministry officials said the traffickers' equipment did not match that of local army units.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez sent his own diplomatic complaint to Washington on Thursday, rejecting the U.S. ambassador's questioning of Mexico's anti-drug efforts. At a news conference, he suggested that the uniformed smugglers could have been Americans.
Yet for some Mexican analysts, the fact that drug traffickers can operate along the border in Mexican army uniforms, even if fake, raises disturbing questions by itself.
"This is very serious, whether they were military or not, because someone should have detected them," said Jorge Chabat, an expert in border security issues and U.S.-Mexico relations.
Chabat and others noted that the military has been Mexico's primary instrument in combating drug trafficking and that the army has made most of the high-profile arrests of drug kingpins in recent years.
The army is seen as less corrupt and less corruptible than Mexico's civilian law enforcement agencies. But the army's role in the drug war inevitably has made it more vulnerable to being corrupted, and there have been several cases of soldiers being arrested for colluding with drug runners.
Monday's border incident began when Texas authorities tried to stop three SUVs on an interstate highway near El Paso. The vehicles fled toward the border, where people in Mexican army-style uniforms with army-style weapons in an army-style Humvee appeared to be waiting for them on the other side of the Rio Grande.
The state officers and sheriff's deputies had their guns drawn, as did the smugglers, but no shots were fired. More than 1,400 pounds of marijuana was found in one of the vehicles, which blew a tire and was abandoned on the Texas side, while the armed, uniformed men flanked a second vehicle stuck in the river while it was unloaded.
West, the county sheriff, said such incursions occur several times a month, and that he and others have been trying to get federal officials to focus on the problem.
"I'm sick and tired of the federal government calling us liars," said West, a Democrat re-elected last year. "Just about every time we catch a big load (of marijuana), every time we chase them back, (Mexican soldiers) are there.
"They're sitting there with Humvees and state-of-the-art military equipment. We're sitting there with (patrol cars). We're sitting there with limited high-powered rifles and sidearms versus machine guns," West said.
West said at other times his deputies have encountered Mexican soldiers who have crossed into Texas to eat at restaurants, although they usually have left their weapons behind.
Proponents of tighter border measures in the United States have been complaining for several years about Mexican army and police incursions. Only a few of the incidents have resulted in confrontations, but officials say they take the incursions seriously.
The number of incursions peaked at 40 in 2002, according to a U.S. Homeland Security report distributed to news organizations by U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who is lobbying for more controls on illegal immigration. Since then the number has dropped sharply; nine incidents were reported last year.
Five more incursions took place in the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. Citing confidential Homeland Security records, the newspaper said the incidents have included five Tijuana police officers pursuing and shooting at two suspects over the border in 2004 and two men in Mexican army uniforms and carrying rifles in a creek bed north of the border near San Diego in October.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents 10,500 border agents, responded angrily to federal officials' downplaying of the incidents.
He noted one case in 2002 when a Border Patrol agent reported a Mexican military vehicle inside Arizona. To avoid a problem, the agent tried to drive away but said the Mexican soldiers fired at him, shattering his back window.
In another case in 2000, Border Patrol agents confronted two Mexican army Humvees a mile inside New Mexico. One of the vehicles stopped, but the soldiers in the other fled and fired two shots at the border agents.
Mexican officials said later that the army units had been lost. In other cases, Mexican soldiers said they believed the U.S. agents were actually in Mexican territory, although Bonner still questioned why they would open fire.

Cover-ups of Mexican military border crossings anger agents

By Sara A. Carter, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Border patrol agents and other law enforcement officials are angry that Mexican and some U.S. officials refuse to acknowledge that Mexican soldiers are crossing into the United States.

Photo Gallery: Sheriff's catch border smugglers on camera

MSNBC Video Interview:
• Reporter Sara A. Carter MSNBC interview on border incursion
Related Articles:
• Mexico to officially investigate military border crossings,
• Mexican soldiers, police square off in Texas
• Group releases incursion video
• Homeland chief plays down Mexican incursion reports
• Mexican troops aiding smugglers, says report
• Border agents unaware of gang death threat
• Report: MS-13 gang hired to murder Border Patrol
Special Section Online: Beyond Borders
Blog Site: Beyond Borders Blog
Some officials suggested Wednesday that the confrontation between Texas law officers earlier this week was with drug smugglers, not Mexican soldiers assisting narcotics traffickers across the Rio Grande.
But a Border Patrol agent who spoke on condition of anonymity said continuous cover-ups by Mexican and U.S. officials have put many agents and American lives in danger.
"I think it shows how desperate the situation has become. I think it's insulting to expect Americans to believe what (Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael) Chertoff and the Mexican government are saying," the agent said Wednesday.
"Isn't it the most reasonable explanation that if men are dressed as soldiers, with military vehicles and mounted machine guns that these guys are soldiers - not some cartel trying to ruin diplomatic relations?"
Photos of what appeared to be Mexican troops in the United States during Monday's incident shocked many Americans, although Mexico officials denied the military was involved.
But to most Mexicans it just offered further proof that drug traffickers run rampant in the border area in military-style vehicles, wearing uniforms and, in some cases, using military firepower.
"It is known that these are drug traffickers using military uniforms and they were not even regulation military uniforms," said Mexican presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said that he was insulted by the U.S. government's lack of response to the serious nature of the incursions.
"I don't believe they are rogue elements because of the markings of the vehicles and because of the insignias on their uniforms and further we've caught them in the past," Bonner said.
"Mexico is being less than honest with us. I don't understand what the U.S. interest is in aiding and abetting what is going on at the border. I don't have faith that it will stop before some of our law enforcement officers are murdered in the line of duty."
A U.S. law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said the FBI and other agencies found no evidence the uniformed men involved in Monday's incident were Mexican soldiers.
But Hardrick Crawford Jr., a former special agent who was in charge of the FBI's El Paso's office, said he covered numerous narcotics cases along the border and documented military incursions since the mid-'90s. He said he expected both governments to deny the incursions.
"It's an embarrassment to both countries for the truth of these incursions to come out," Crawford said.
"I was concerned about the incursions on the border when I first got to El Paso. I wanted agents to go interview every rancher and resident in the area and I wanted the military incursions to be documented. I thought this would be important information - but many people didn't do anything about these incursions."
Crawford added that investigations in Mexico were difficult to conduct because the honest Mexican residents didn't want to put their own lives in danger by giving law enforcement officials information on the drug cartels.
"The drug trade is too lucrative," Crawford said. "Mexican soldiers and police officials are paid little. So it's just too tempting. With the increased efficiency and effort along the border, narcotics traffickers can bring in whatever they want. And if you go against them they'll kill you."
This week's standoff comes at a time of rising anger over border security, with the United States considering extending a wall along its 2,000-mile-long frontier with Mexico - an idea Mexicans resent.
"We have communicated at the diplomatic level with the government of Mexico on the matter and requested that they investigate the matter - and that U.S. authorities are already investigating the incident," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
The Mexican government also cited its long-standing policy that its soldiers must stay away from the border unless they have special authorization.
Rick Glancey of the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition said the confrontation began 50 miles east of El Paso when state police tried to stop three sport utility vehicles on Interstate 10. The vehicles made a quick U-turn and headed south toward the border, a few miles away.
Crossing the border, one SUV got stuck crossing the Rio Grande, and men in a Humvee tried in vain to tow it out. Then a group of men in civilian clothes began unloading what appeared to be bundles of marijuana, and torched the SUV before fleeing.
The Mexican army press office said it had no information on Monday's incident.
Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said in a statement that the confrontation, in which shots were not fired, could have been staged to "damage the image of our armed forces and bilateral cooperation."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sara A. Carter can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (909) 483-8552.


Mexico says drug smugglers in border tiff
MEXICO CITY (AP) — The men dressed in military garb who crossed the border and confronted Texas law officers this week were drug smugglers, not Mexican soldiers, officials said Wednesday, illustrating Mexico's thorny problem with criminals who masquerade as security forces.
Photos of what appeared to be Mexican troops in U.S. territory during the incident Monday shocked many Americans, although Mexico quickly denied its military was involved.
But to most Mexicans it just offered further proof that drug traffickers run rampant around the border area in military-style vehicles, wearing uniforms and, in some cases, using military firepower.
"It is known that these are drug traffickers using military uniforms and they were not even regulation military uniforms," Mexican presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar told reporters.
A U.S. law enforcement official said the FBI and other agencies found no evidence the uniformed men were Mexican soldiers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Both countries said they were investigating the case, which comes at a time of rising anger over border security, with Washington considering extending a wall along its 2,000-mile-long frontier with Mexico — an idea Mexicans bitterly resent.
"We have communicated at the diplomatic level with the government of Mexico on the matter and requested that they investigate the matter — and that U.S. authorities are already investigating the incident," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.
The Mexican government also cited its long-standing policy that its soldiers must stay away from the border unless they have special authorization.
In Mexico, kidnappers and drug smugglers regularly wear police gear. Caps, vests and T-shirts bearing official-looking logos for Mexico's federal police force are sold at street stands. Some police even rent out their uniforms or patrol cars to shakedown artists.
"It's very easy to go out and buy military uniforms in a store ... It's very easy to get (uniforms) for any police agency you want to imitate," said Rodolfo Casillas, a professor at the Latin American School for Social Sciences.
Rick Glancey of the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition said the faceoff began 50 miles east of El Paso when state police tried to stop three sport-utility vehicles on Interstate 10. The vehicles made a quick U-turn and headed south toward the border, a few miles away.
Crossing the border, one SUV got stuck in the Rio Grande River, and men in a Humvee tried in vain to tow it out. Then a group of men in civilian clothes began unloading what appeared to be bundles of marijuana, and torched the SUV before fleeing.
The Mexican army press office said it had no information on Monday's incident.
Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said in a statement that the confrontation, in which shots were not fired, could have been staged to "damage the image of our armed forces and bilateral cooperation."
Recent reports that Mexican army and police have crossed into the United States about 20 times a year have irked border states — even though Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff played down the problem, noting that in many places the border is not clearly marked.
Mexico has struggled to remove corrupt law enforcers and keep security equipment out of the wrong hands. But police and soldiers have been arrested and charged with carrying out drug operations and even kidnappings.
One of the most high-profile cases involves the "Zetas," a gang of deserters from an elite Mexican army military unit that has fought a bloody turf war to control trafficking routes on the border.
Aguilar, the presidential spokesman, said fighting organized crime is "a long-term, short-term and medium-term battle that this administration faces, and that will also face the following administrations."

DHS unveils massive, fast-track border project
By Wilson P. Dizard III,
GCN Staff
The Homeland Security Department today took the wraps off its ambitious plan to quickly gain control of the U.S. northern and southern borders by hiring a systems integration contract team to carry out the Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

DHS plans to request proposals in March and award a contract by Sept. 30 to deploy new technology as part of a comprehensive overhaul of security between ports of entry along the land borders.

SBI.net replaces the America’s Shield Initiative (ASI), the Border Patrol’s more limited and now canceled plan to modernize the sensor networks along the borders. The fiscal 2006 budget includes $31 million for ASI, but plans that DHS officials announced today at the SBI.net industry day strongly suggested that the new project would cost much more.

Homeland Security deputy secretary Michael P. Jackson told an audience of hundreds of vendor representatives and federal employees gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington that secretary Michael Chertoff has tagged SBI as “ one of most important public policy priorities.”

He added, “The America’s Shield Initiative is dead, but its [impetus] has been strengthened, refined and renewed.” Jackson emphasized that “our objective is to have a procurement completed by the end of this fiscal year.”

After Jackson expressed DHS’ desire to field proven systems rather than experimental projects, and to do so in an innovative fashion, the attendees heard from a who’s who of SBI.net officials, including Deborah Spero, acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection; Kevin Stevens, the acting program director for SBI in Customs and Border Protection; SBI program executive director Greg Giddens; and John Ely, SBI procurement executive.

An overarching theme of the industry day was expressed by Jackson as SBI being the nation’s first comprehensive attempt to gain control of the southern border, a region characterized by one speaker as chaotic. “We have never had a credible plan to enforce the southern border,” said Jackson, who noted that political conditions now are aligned to permit a thoroughgoing approach to border management.

Spero emphasized that DHS has “an extremely aggressive and ambitious implementation schedule.” After DHS issues its proposal request in March, officials plan to hold a preproposal conference the following month to respond to questions from industry.

DHS plans to launch a Web site for SBI.net and post a transcript of the industry day presentations there. Officials said the department would release details about the Web site on the fedbizopps.gov Web site Jan. 30.

Giddens, who joined the SBI.net project from a previous assignment in the Coast Guard, said, “This is a signature effort for the department.” He emphasized the need to take a systems approach to the SBI.net project, and said that it would include several aspects, such as ending the “catch and release” approach to illegal border crossers, deterring cross-border crimes, strengthening employer compliance programs, removing incarcerated aliens and bolstering interior enforcement.

Attendees watched a PowerPoint presentation that depicted crowds of illegal aliens storming urban border crossings, assembling in long lines of trucks carrying border crossers and trudging in long columns along rural trails. The presentation showed how the geography of the southern border funnels illegal human migration into three main routes. When the Border Patrol floods enforcement resources into one illegal crossing zone, the human traffic displaces—sometimes hundreds of miles—to easier crossing sites, according to the Border Patrol.

SBI.net will have to use existing federal infrastructure as well as Border Patrol staff and their various kinds of equipment already in use, officials said. Officials encouraged the gathered vendors to consider innovative but proven technologies, such as satellite communications, to weave together a comprehensive method of managing border issues.

Those issues include human bondage, banditry targeted at border crossers, safety of border crossers and Border Patrol agents, border intrusions by thousands of violent criminal aliens and environmental degradation, among other problems, officials said.

Because SBI itself won’t begin until fiscal 2007, its funding likely will form a key part of the administration’s pending budget proposal for the department. Even as former DHS secretary Tom Ridge told his team that the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System would be the program by which the public would judge the department’s success, it appears possible that the ambitious SBI.net project could become secretary Chertoff’s hallmark.

SBI.net will use program offices in three separate DHS directorates: CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. The department will draw on the efforts of 11,000 Border Patrol personnel, as well as other DHS staff, to stem the tide of illegal crossings that led to 1.2 million arrests at the borders last year, according to statistics presented at the industry day.

Jackson said that DHS expects vendors to form teams and to involve small businesses in their SBI proposals and added that some teams have been forming already. The industry day attendees included not only representatives of vendors large and small but also brokers who sought to form alliances among vendors, at a price.

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