Section 306 of H.R. 4437, the border security bill passed by the House on Friday, includes the following provision:
SEC. 306. CENTER OF EXCELLENCE FOR BORDER SECURITY.
(a) Establishment- The Secretary of Homeland Security shall establish a university-based Center of Excellence for Border Security following the merit-review processes and procedures and other limitations that have been established for selecting and supporting University Programs Centers of Excellence.
(b) Activities of the Center- The Center shall prioritize its activities on the basis of risk to address the most significant threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences posed by United States borders and border control systems. The activities shall include the conduct of research, the examination of existing and emerging border security technology and systems, and the provision of education, technical, and analytical assistance for the Department of Homeland Security to effectively secure the borders.
Considered in isolation, this seems like a good idea. But is there really such a thing as distinct “border security technology and systems”? No, not really. There are technologies and systems that can be used at a border – but not only there.
Instead, Congress should be reminded of this recommendation from the 9/11 Commission Report (on page 387):
The U.S. border security system should be integrated into a larger network of screening points that includes our transportation system and access to vital facilities, such as nuclear reactors. The President should direct the Department of Homeland Security to lead the effort to design a comprehensive screening system, addressing common problems and setting common standards with systemwide goals in mind. Extending those standards among other governments could dramatically strengthen America and the worldâ€™s collective ability to intercept individuals who pose catastrophic threats.
If this bill is going to mandate a new Center of Excellence, it should be done consistent with this broader vision (see also this CRS report), looking interdependently at technologies for borders, barriers, conduits and checkpoints – instead of concentrating research and systems development on the single, narrow point of failure at the border.