Pentagon defends Trump troop deployments at border

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2018, file photo, members of the U.S. military install multiple tiers of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande near the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan says the U.S. will be sending "several thousand" more American troops to the southern border to provide additional support to Homeland Security. He says the troops will mainly be used to install additional wire barriers and provide increased surveillance of the area. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

President Trump's use of active duty troops at America's southwest border has helped stem illegal immigration there, Pentagon officials said, without impeding the ability of the military to execute vital missions elsewhere.

"Thus far, the results have been very successful," Vice Admiral Michael Gilday, director of operations for the Joint Staff, testified at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this week.

Gilday told lawmakers the deployments had allowed agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that exercises primary responsibility for law enforcement at the border, "to be able to spread their manpower more efficiently across a large number of ports of entry that could have potentially been at risk."

That assessment came roughly forty-eight hours before President Trump vowed, in a Twitter post, to add to the number of soldiers supporting the mission. "More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted Invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country," the president tweeted shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday.

Pentagon spokesman Bill Speaks, who specializes in issues relating to the border, did not respond to telephone calls or emails seeking clarification of the president's tweet. Among the questions raised by the commander-in-chief's cryptic post was he was referring to a new deployment of troops, beyond those already serving near the border, and whether he meant active duty troops or those performing National Guard or reservist duty.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes CBP under its aegis, estimates that three new migrant "caravans" are headed for the U.S. border, with one of them numbering more than 12,000 people.

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, expressed skepticism at Tuesday's hearing that the situation along the Mexican border warranted the president's deployment. He said migration from Mexico has remained stagnant for the last four years, and that with apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the border routinely numbering under 400,000 per year, the threat is far lower than it was during the peak years of 2004-05, when apprehensions exceeded 1 million annually. "There's really not much evidence that right at the moment, it is a crisis that would call for the -- if not unprecedented, then highly unusual -- step of sending active-duty troops to the border," Smith said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the panel's ranking member, noted that several successive presidents have utilized the armed forces to curb illegal immigration from Mexico. Among the cases he cited was the use of troops to build and improve "physical barriers" at the border back in 1997, under President Clinton, and the enlistment of soldiers to install sensor equipment in 2012, under President Obama. "What the [Trump] administration has done is in line with, consistent with, the sorts of things that we have asked the military to do for a long, long time," Thornberry said.

Defense Department officials said the president's initial deployment, starting in early November, saw some 5,900 active duty troops dispatched to the southwest border. There, constricted from direct contact with migrants, such as search, seizure, or arrest -- duties entrusted to the border patrol agents -- the troops performed ancillary services, such as aviation duties, transporting CBP agents assigned to "quick reaction forces," and hardening ports of entry by erecting temporary barriers, stringing concertina wire, and other measures. Officials testified Tuesday that by Christmas, the number had dropped to under 2,400, where it remains today.

On January 11, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan approved a new DHS request for additional support from active duty troops, including the operation of mobile surveillance cameras in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, and the installation of an additional 150 miles of concertina wire by March 31.

Mark F. Cancian, a retired Marine colonel who served in Vietnam and both wars in Iraq, disputed Chairman Smith's assertion that President Trump's deployment of active duty troops to the border was rare, if not unprecedented, over the last three decades. Cancian also argued that conditions along the border -- where CBP agents also recently seized some 650 pounds of meth and fentanyl, believed to be one of the largest such interdictions in history -- could be construed as warranting the deployment of active duty troops.

"The fact that you have these caravans bringing large numbers of migrants up to the border," Cancian told Sinclair, "has lent some credibility to the president's concern that there's a crisis."

Now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Cancian further assessed that the relatively low number of troops involved meant that the Trump deployments would carry little to no impact on overall military readiness -- a Pentagon term of art that refers to the ability of the military to carry out unrelated missions in other regions.

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