C. Allegations regarding the positioning of scope units
During the course of the investigation, the OIG received complaints that scopes at Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, and Brown Field were being placed in less strategically situated locations to reduce the ability of scope operators to observe traffic. Related to this were claims that scope operators were being told not to look north so they would not observe traffic there. The OIG interviewed 186 agents about these complaints, including the 87 Gatekeeper-era scope operators.
1. Imperial Beach
At Imperial Beach, we interviewed 68 agents, including 43 scope operators, regarding the placement of scopes. Prior to Gatekeeper, the Station operated two scopes. Since Gatekeeper, it has operated three to four. These are generally placed in standard locations, although they may on occasion be moved to address a change in traffic patterns. One agent claimed that, for some unspecified period, one of the scopes was placed only 200 yards from the border, facing south, making it impossible for agents to monitor aliens traveling north of the scope. The agent did not know the scope's exact location or whether this scope was supplementing the usual scope positions. Although we could not tell whether other scopes had been sited to monitor traffic to the north, there was one scope permanently positioned north of where this scope appears to have been located. Additional scopes also are positioned so traffic further than 200 yards from the border is observable. As none of the other Imperial Beach scope operators complained about scope deployment, the most plausible explanation for the positioning of the scope in question was to address a particular traffic entry problem, consistent with the Gatekeeper strategy of trying to observe and apprehend traffic close to the border. Given that each scope can cover several miles of territory when placed in high positions and the fact that the entire Imperial Beach border is only five miles long, the Station's complement of four scopes allowed for one to be given a restrictive focus without sacrificing coverage of the entire area. As we received no complaints that the standard scope locations are inappropriate and no other complaints about the temporary use of this one scope, we find no basis to conclude that the Imperial Beach scopes were placed so as to limit their effectiveness.
An agent from Chula Vista told the OIG of hearing complaints from Imperial Beach scope operators that they were being told not to call out large groups in the distance as "gotaways" or as "sightings." Without more details, we cannot fully assess this claim. It is noteworthy, however, that we received no such complaint from the Imperial Beach scope operators. Furthermore, such an instruction may have been justified if the point was - as with sensors - that radio time should not be used to call out groups that were too far away to be apprehended by the limited manpower available. The distant traffic would still be recorded as observed but gotaway.
2. Chula Vista
Several agents claimed that scopes at the Chula Vista Station had been removed from optimal areas or placed in less optimal areas in order to prevent agents from seeing alien traffic. There were also several complaints about agents being told not to call out traffic they had observed. We interviewed 51 agents, including 18 scope operators, about these complaints.
Several witnesses told of one particular incident. In September 1996, according to one second-hand account, a supervisor had told two agents to move a scope from a particular location because he was "not going to be responsible for working traffic this far north." One of the agents he identified as being involved denied being involved but said he had heard of the incident. He said he believed that the supervisor had ordered the scope moved because he did not want "to take the heat" for the scope operator's "directing his agents toward alien traffic." The one agent who was involved testified that he had wanted to place a scope in one location but the supervisor had intervened. The supervisor had not said he could not put the scope there, but merely that no one would be able to work the traffic observed from that position. The supervisor denied ever saying anything about not wanting to "take the heat" for a scope operator in this particular location. He noted, however, his belief that the position selected by the agent was not an effective one.
The location the agent had selected to set up the scope was one that had been used before Gatekeeper when agents worked away from the border. Supervisors told us that there used to be a lot of alien traffic in this area and agents liked to work there. Once Gatekeeper was implemented, however, agents were no longer assigned to work in this area. Thus, the supervisor's alleged comment that there would be no agents to work the traffic if the scope was placed there is consistent with the Gatekeeper plan of working traffic closer to the border. We credit the account of the agent actually involved in the incident and believe that the supervisor simply pointed out the futility of the scope position.
Two other agents reported a similar incident at the same location in which a different supervisor told an agent not to place a scope there because manpower was not available to work the target area and, because another position was of higher priority. Again, the essence of any complaints here was simply that agents did not like Gatekeeper's deterrent strategy.
Another agent testified that, on a rainy night in December 1995, a scope operator set up in the very same location which the agent described as the "perfect location" for a scope. A supervisor, the same one involved in the first incident, allegedly told the operator to move the scope because the location was too dangerous in the rain. This agent said he believed this was "just an excuse." He claimed that many agents were upset by the decision and did not understand why a scope would be moved from a high traffic location to a low traffic location.
During the rainy season, operations at the Chula Vista Station are dramatically altered. In areas without paved roads, equipment frequently gets caught in the mud and roads become impassable. Such conditions can affect officer safety, and we cannot assume that the supervisor was not actually concerned about safety here. Moreover, because this area was not in the Gatekeeper plan, the supervisor did not need to make up excuses to move agents from the area. As the agent offered nothing but his own personal suspicions for why the supervisor would not let the scope operate in that location that evening and because there were legitimate reasons for the supervisor's decision, there is no basis to infer malfeasance here.
One agent complained about the placing of a scope in a particular location in the eastern portion of the Station's area of responsibility. He claimed it should have been placed on higher ground and suggested a particular area. Given that there was already a scope in the location he suggested, the positioning of the scope in the eastern position, where it could monitor additional areas, appears to have been entirely reasonable.
At the heart of the agents' complaints just discussed was not an allegation of malfeasance, but concern at their inability to select the areas they wished to work. In any event, regardless of the agents' beliefs or preferences, it appears that the Station's strategy of working the traffic closer to the border and thus preventing traffic from ever reaching the area that agents preferred to work, was entirely appropriate and led to a dramatic drop in traffic levels in the area in question.
There also were several claims that scope operators were told to avoid seeing traffic in their area of responsibility. Two agents claimed that a supervisor had told another agent not to look north so he would not have to document the gotaways. One agent claimed that a scope operator was told not to call out traffic to the north because agents would want to leave their assigned positions along the border to respond. Another said he was told to ignore traffic sighted on Interstate 5. One agent reported that another was told not to call out traffic observed past the first tier. One agent said he had heard a supervisor tell a scope operator to "keep the PAs out of trouble," which he interpreted to mean not to turn the scope north.
Although we are not certain about the specifics of these claims, there was a legitimate reason to order the scope operators to face south. This was a key part of the Gatekeeper strategy: a plan to focus on traffic as it entered the country and not let it get past the agents deployed near the border. The scope operator focusing on groups to the north would miss traffic closer to the border and, particularly during the first year of Gatekeeper when supervisors were having a very hard time getting agents to stay in their assigned positions, it made sense to prevent scope operators from deflecting agents' attention to the northern traffic. Over time, this strategy has proven effective, but, in its early days, agents were clearly suspicious of the plan and of any orders that departed from their usual operating methods, such as to work southern traffic. While agents testified that supervisors were saying the reason behind the order was to prevent agents from seeing gotaways, we question whether this was the explanation supervisors actually gave. They had a legitimate reason for their orders and did not have to give inappropriate ones. To the extent they did give inappropriate reasons, they need to learn the justifications for their operations and how to better communicate them.
3. Brown Field
There were essentially two complaints about scope locations at Brown Field. We interviewed 32 agents at Brown Field, including 20 scope operators, to address these claims.
One agent from another station said he had heard that, in early 1996, a Brown Field scope was moved to an area where there was no known traffic (allegedly so the scope operator would report that there was no alien traffic penetrating the defenses at the border). He also said he heard that the scope operator (who this agent could not identify) then reported 300 gotaways at this location but was told that the number was too high. A second agent from another station also had heard that a Brown Field scope had been moved to a low traffic area to demonstrate that alien traffic had decreased in the area.
These agents likely had heard rumors about the scope that Brown Field put in the Lakes area in early 1996 for intelligence purposes. As discussed further in the sensor section, one aspect of the Gatekeeper plan moved sensors and manpower from the Lakes area to work closer to the border. Sometime after this move, Brown Field sent scope operators up to the Lakes area solely for intelligence purposes to determine whether traffic was still making it to this area. The scope operators we interviewed who had this duty said they were told just to record whatever traffic they observed. Because there were no units to work the traffic, it was not called out. No one suggested that agents were told that their reports of gotaways were too high. Indeed, with no agents to work the traffic, all aliens observed were expected to be gotaways. Some time later, resources again were deployed to this area to address the lingering traffic issues. The fact that the Brown Field agents did not complain about the Lakes positioning suggests that they understood the reasoning behind the plan.
The one complaint we received from Brown Field scope operators came from two who said that, for several months in mid-1996, when the emphasis had shifted to working traffic south of the Otay Mountain Truck Trail, scopes had been placed in locations that limited their ability to observe traffic. Neither agent alleged this had been done in bad faith; one attributed it to bad management. Both agreed that the problem was soon remedied.
The redeployment complained about was a product of the Station's efforts to work traffic on the mountain closer to the border, instead of waiting until after it had come down the back side of the mountain. And we found substantial documentary evidence that the Station made great efforts to locate scopes in the most productive areas, consistent with the new strategy.171 Based on the testimony and documentation, we conclude that any suboptimal scope placement was not done with any malicious intent to undermine operational effectiveness.
4. Summary of findings regarding scope placement
Although there were a few isolated complaints about scope placement, we conclude that there was no effort on the part of supervisors to place scopes in unproductive locations - certainly no intentional effort to hide traffic. On occasion, agents wanted to place scopes elsewhere, but those positions were not consistent with the Gatekeeper plan of trying to work traffic closer to the border.
171 We found numerous analyses measuring the effectiveness of the scopes in various locations and evidence of considerable discussion regarding possible scope sites. A memorandum in May 1996 assessed alternative locations, noting their respective advantages and disadvantages. A March 1996 electronic mail message from a supervisor at another station complimented a Brown Field scope operator on his good work and commented on the effectiveness of his position. Another message in May 1996 discussed how an additional scope had been used for a training group and had resulted in a large number of apprehensions.