Media ignore Chertoff's flip-flop on sending National Guard to border

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Following President Bush's announcement of his proposal to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the administration's plan to bolster border protection in numerous media appearances and interviews. But in their coverage, media generally failed to mention that in December 2005, Chertoff characterized the deployment of the National Guard for border protection as "a horribly overexpensive and very difficult way to manage this problem."

In the 24 hours after President Bush announced his proposal to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff took to the airwaves to defend the administration's plan to bolster border protection and stanch the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Chertoff gave numerous television and radio interviews and was quoted in various news reports on Bush's proposal. But in their coverage, media generally failed to give any indication that Chertoff's position on sending the National Guard to the Mexican border seems to have changed dramatically in the past five months. With few exceptions, national news outlets overlooked comments Chertoff made in December 2005 in which he characterized deployment of the National Guard for border protection as "a horribly overexpensive and very difficult way to manage this problem."

In a May 15 nationally televised speech on immigration reform, Bush announced his plan to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to assist the Border Patrol. "This initial commitment of Guard members would last for a period of one year," Bush said. "After that, the number of Guard forces will be reduced as new Border Patrol agents and new technologies come online."

In a December 15, 2005, interview on Fox News, however, Chertoff emphatically opposed the idea of sending Guard troops to the border, as the weblog TPM Muckraker noted in a May 16 entry (crediting Congressional Quarterly's Patrick Yoest). Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor, asked Chertoff, "Why don't you put the National Guard on the border to back up the Border Patrol?" to which Chertoff responded:

CHERTOFF: I think the National Guard's really, first of all, not trained for that mission. I mean, the fact of the matter is the border is a special place. There are special challenges that are faced there.

[...]

CHERTOFF: But to really deploy across the border, you'd have to deploy an enormous number of people. You'd have to supply them at the border, and you'd have to give them the kind of training to deal with people who are crossing the border. You don't necessarily want to put --

O'REILLY: You don't think you can do that? I think the Guard could do that.

CHERTOFF: I think it would be a horribly overexpensive and very difficult way to manage this problem.

O'REILLY: But it's something.

CHERTOFF: I think there's a smarter way to do it. Well, it would -- unless you would be prepared to leave those people in the National Guard day and night for month after month after month, you would eventually have to come to grips with the challenge in a more comprehensive way.

Nonetheless, in making the rounds on the major cable news networks on May 16, Chertoff repeatedly explained Bush's proposal and defended it as an appropriate response to the problem of illegal immigration. For instance, in an interview on MSNBC News Live, Chertoff spoke at length about the National Guard deployment, but co-host Randy Meier failed to bring up his recent opposition to the tactic. Nor did Chertoff face questions about his prior statements during a brief discussion of the National Guard proposal on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto. Further, on the May 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron aired a clip of Chertoff saying that Bush's plan had "put on the turbo-chargers in dealing with this focused anti-illegal migrant effort." But Cameron failed to inform viewers that Chertoff had earlier declared on Fox News that there was "a smarter way" to deal with illegal immigration than sending National Guard troops to aid the Border Patrol.

Similarly, on the May 16 edition of CNN's American Morning, co-host Soledad O'Brien interviewed Chertoff regarding Bush's proposal. While O'Brien asked Chertoff if we could "afford to pay for" the National Guard deployment, she did not note his earlier claim that such a plan would be "horribly overexpensive."

Later in the day, during the May 16 White House press briefing, CNN congressional correspondent Ed Henry asked White House press secretary Tony Snow about Chertoff's statement in December that the National Guard "is not trained" to assist the Border Patrol:

HENRY: Tony, the president laid out this plan last night to bring the National Guard in, up to 6,000 troops. But back in December, his own homeland security secretary, I think on a program you, in fact, were guest-hosting, said this is not a plan, quote, "The National Guard is really, first of all, not trained for that mission." ... Why has the White House changed its position in the last few months, first of all? And second of all, does the administration regret not moving quicker to deal with this border security?

In his response, Snow claimed that Chertoff had been specifically referring to the use of National Guard troops for law enforcement on the border. "[T]here is no sense that the National Guard is going to be doing that," Snow said. "Instead, what the president is saying is, we're going to make National Guard units available to do non-law-enforcement tasks ... which would permit Border Patrol agents -- who sometimes have to do other things -- to go ahead and work on the border." But Chertoff had gone further -- saying that a plan to "back up the Border Patrol" (in O'Reilly's words) would be "horribly overexpensive" and a "difficult way to manage this problem," which Henry did not raise with Snow. Later in the day, on CNN's Live From ..., host Kyra Philips replayed the exchange between Henry and Snow, but she, too, failed to inform viewers of Chertoff's full criticism.

That evening, on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, host Lou Dobbs aired a clip of Chertoff speaking in support of the proposal and noted, "Despite Michael Chertoff's remarks, critics of the president remain highly skeptical about the National Guard's new role along our southern border." Dobbs made no mention of the fact that Chertoff himself has expressed skepticism about a border-security role for the National Guard. Nor did CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr bring up this fact when she subsequently reported that Chertoff "says the National Guard will be part of a comprehensive approach to border security."

In an interview on the May 16 edition of National Public Radio's (NPR) All Things Considered, co-host Michele Norris asked Chertoff several questions about the proposed National Guard deployment but never pressed him on his earlier criticism of the idea.

On May 16, Chertoff also held a press briefing on Bush's immigration proposals alongside top officials from the Pentagon, Border Patrol, and National Guard. Yet during the question-and-answer portion of the news conference, no reporter asked Chertoff to explain his apparent change of opinion about sending the National Guard to the border.

Further, in May 17 articles on the president's proposal, The New York Times (here and here), The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times included quotes of Chertoff defending the plan. None contrasted these quotes with his earlier statement on the subject.

From the May 16 edition of MSNBC News Live:

MEIER: Joining me now is one of the men who would make it a reality, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Secretary Chertoff, thanks for joining me.

CHERTOFF: Good to be here.

MEIER: I want to go through a couple of numbers here. President Bush wants 6,000 National Guard troops on those borders, serving two or three weeks at a time, in stints like that. That means up to 156,000 troops would serve on the border over the next two years or so. And people are asking, "Are we asking too much of the National Guard? We have troops in Iraq, we have troops in Afghanistan, and we have a hurricane season coming up. Can they do all of this?"

CHERTOFF: Well, Randy, there are about 450,000 total members of the National Guard, and all that would be serving at any one time, at most would be 6,000. So the National Guard is comfortable that this is not going interfere with the other important missions that the guardsmen do.

MEIER: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls the National Guard plan a Band-Aid fix. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson also says this is a short-term fix. Without the support -- and they have been pretty vocal about it -- of those border states, how do you make this a reality?

CHERTOFF: Well, I'm sure the border states are going to support the effort here, which is to use the National Guard as a bridge while we get the Border Patrol recruiting process to the point that we can add 6,000 more permanent Border Patrol to the border. The president's program at the end of the day is over the next two, two and a quarter years, to bring the Border Patrol up to over 18,000. But he also wants to make sure that we can immediately, on a short-term basis, start to address these -- this need for additional resources by using National Guard to support those Border Patrol agents on the border.

MEIER: Mr. Secretary, who will be in charge down there? You've got National Guard troops, you've got border police, you've got local police. Who will be making the call?

CHERTOFF: Well, the lead agency is going to be the Border Patrol. They are the experts. They will set out the mission assignments, and then the National Guard and any local police that want to participate will execute those mission assignments as determined by the Border Patrol. Now, we've actually done this over the last 20 years. We've had the National Guard down at the border working on all kinds of missions under the leadership of the Border Patrol -- fighting drug dealers, for example.

From the May 16 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:

NEIL CAVUTO (host): Are you worried, with this proposal to get the National Guard involved in the Mexican border, Secretary, that there could be a clash with Minutemen already there and National Guardsmen on their way there?

CHERTOFF: Well, first, let me say the National Guard would be operating in support of the Border Patrol, which means they are going to perform very important missions, but not missions that put them directly in the way of apprehending migrants who are sneaking across the border. As far as various civilian groups are concerned, look, it's a free country. People are free to express themselves. They are free to go where they will, as long as they don't interfere with operational activities. What we don't want to have is civilians taking matters into their own hands. And I think that the addition of the National Guard, as we are in the process of dramatically increasing the Border Patrol, is really a message to everybody: Let's leave this in the hands of the professionals.

CAVUTO: All right, Secretary, I threw a lot at you today, but thank you for answering it all.

CHERTOFF: Happy to be here.

From the May 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

CAMERON: But as part of the administration's full-court press, Pentagon and homeland security officials argued that the president's plan to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the region is, in fact, a bigger personnel commitment than anything contemplated by Congress and should break the impasse.

CHERTOFF [video clip]: What the president did last night is put on the turbo-chargers in dealing with this focused anti-illegal migrant effort that we've got on a comprehensive basis.

CAMERON: The administration hopes to start deploying Guard members to help out with border-region logistics and intelligence in just three weeks. It would amount to about 2 percent of overall Guard personnel, and the president directly disputed complaints in both parties that it would stretch the Guard too thin.

From the May 16 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: Michael Chertoff is the homeland security secretary. He's in front of the White House this morning. Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for talking with us.

CHERTOFF: Good morning.

O'BRIEN: There are certainly many critics who would say 6,000 troops -- just not enough. If you do the math, 2,000 miles of border we're talking about -- not enough people.

CHERTOFF: Well, the answer here, of course, is to leverage the people with technology, and that's why the president talked about doing things like getting more unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors, infrared detectors. Because with these kinds of tools, you can use what will ultimately be over 18,000 Border Patrol to do the entire border in a way that is cost-effective and also effective in terms of mission completion.

O'BRIEN: Other people have said -- who are critical, will say, "You're stretching the National Guard when, in fact, you take National Guard troops and put them in this capacity." Here's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California. He would sort of know. Let's listen to what he said.

CALIFORNIA GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R) [video clip]: We have thousands of National Guards in Iraq. So we are already stretching and really at -- on the tremendous stress, the way things are right now because we have a shortage of National Guards that are here in California.

O'BRIEN: Is he wrong? Is there not a shortage of National Guard troops in California?

CHERTOFF: Well, I actually spoke to the governor yesterday, and what we need to make clear is, first of all, the total number of National Guardsmen is about 450,000. So this is less than 2 percent of the total Guard that we would talk about cycling into the border over the next year to two years. Second, they wouldn't all come from California. They would come from National Guardsmen who have training obligations, annual training obligations that would perform those obligations on the border instead of elsewhere.

O'BRIEN: More Border Patrol help would essentially mean you have more people being arrested, and you're not really, in the very short term, adding to the detention facilities, are you?

CHERTOFF: Well, actually, the president's proposal would add 4,000 beds virtually immediately and get us up to between 27,000 and 28,000 beds by the end of the next year. So we would have additional beds to handle the people we apprehend. But a critical part of this issue is, cutting the amount of time it takes just to get those people back home, and we've cut that by almost two-thirds in the last eight months.

O'BRIEN: You know, we haven't talked -- I mean you've listed a number of things the president has proposed from last night but really haven't mentioned the cost of all this. Who's going to pay for it? And can we afford to pay for it?

CHERTOFF: Well, obviously, it's an important mission for the American people, and that means we do have to make an investment in our border security. Now, the Senate passed a supplemental appropriation in the last week or so which has a little under $2 billion for border security. And I think the theory is, one could allocate that money in a way that would help meet these goals and get the job done.

From the May 16 edition of CNN's Live From ... :

PHILLIPS: One down, several hundred, give or take, to go. I'm talking White House briefings conducted by the new White House briefer in chief, Tony Snow. If you were watching CNN a couple hours ago, you saw Snow's live debut featuring CNN's Ed Henry.

[begin video clip]

HENRY: Tony, the president laid out this plan last night to bring the National Guard in, up to 6,000 troops. But back in December, his own homeland security secretary, I think on a program you, in fact, were guest-hosting, said this is not a plan, quote, "The National Guard is really, first of all, not trained for that mission."

SNOW: Right.

HENRY: Why has the White House changed its position in the last few months, first of all? And second of all, does the administration regret not moving quicker to deal with this border security?

[end video clip]

From the May 16 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: Another person speaking out for the president's proposal, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Chertoff has found a new and unusual way to describe the president's guest-worker proposals.

CHERTOFF [video clip]: It's like trying to dam a river. If you build a dam and you don't have a spillway to drain off some of the excess water in a way that's productive, you will eventually have to either keep building the dam higher and higher, or the dam will break. We have to have a spillway for some of this economic pressure, and that's a temporary-worker program.

DOBBS: If I may say, one of the more lamentable metaphors that emanated from this city in which many lamentable metaphors originate. Chertoff was more clear when he talked about -- he was much clearer, in fact, when he talked about the president's plan to send National Guard troops to the border. Secretary Chertoff said the federal government will consult governors about the Guard's new mission.

Despite Michael Chertoff's remarks, critics of the president remain highly skeptical about the National Guard's new role along our southern border. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner [R-VA], today said he will hold hearings on the military's new border mission. Barbara Starr reports from the Pentagon.

[begin video clip]

STARR (voice over): Officials say the new border-security deployment will simply give the National Guard more experience in their now typical jobs, fighting war and disaster relief, but insists it won't keep them from being ready to do those jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get up there!

STARR: The first of 6,000 troops are expected to arrive on the U.S.-Mexico border next month. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the National Guard will be part of a comprehensive approach to border security.

CHERTOFF: We can have a transformative effect on our immigration problem and illegal migration problem that has plagued this country for over 20 years.

[end video clip]

From the May 16 edition of National Public Radio's All Things Considered:

NORRIS: I want to ask you about the proposal to send the National Guard to the border. The president said that these additional duties would not overtax the National Guard. As you well know, not everyone agrees. Lawmakers, military analysts and the Republican governor of California, a large border state, says that this would overtax the Guard. What if they're right? And how did you determine that the Guard could indeed handle these additional duties?

CHERTOFF: Well, I think the facts are very clear, here. There are about 450,000 National Guardsmen. The total amount that would be on the border at any one time is less than 2 percent, and the mission that the president has designated here can comfortably fall within the capabilities of the Guard without disturbing either their obligations overseas or their necessity to be ready for a natural disaster in this country.

NORRIS: And the two-week rotations. Does that really give them enough time to get their footing? To understand what they're really up against there on the border?

CHERTOFF: Well, typically what we've done in the past is we've exploited their specialties. I mean, if we have an engineering unit, for example, we use their engineering capabilities to build some of the infrastructure at the border. So it's something that they're trained to do, and all we need to do is work out a -- what we call a reception package that explains to the troops what the particular mission is.

NORRIS: How do you deal with the concerns that the Guard might cross the line toward law-enforcement duties? I know the president said that their duties would be somewhat limited. But if they are limited, it seems like a catch-22. If they're limited, how effective can they actually be?

CHERTOFF: Well, I think you need to recognize, of course, the duties that the Border Patrol performs covers both the actual apprehension of the migrants. But it also involves transportation. It involves operating surveillance equipment. It involves aerial surveillance. And most of these missions do not actually require contact with an illegal migrant. And I think the track record gives us an assurance that there are many things the Guard can do to support the Border Patrol at the border that will not require them to step over the line.

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