04/03/2012 11:47 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2012

Border Security: Southwest Congress Members Ask For Returning Military Equipment

Story comes courtesy of California Watch.

Two members of Congress and several sheriffs in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico are calling on the U.S. Department of Defense to send military equipment returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to local law enforcement agencies on the Southwest border.

The congressmen, Democrat Henry Cuellar and Republican Ted Poe, both of Texas, wrote a letter [PDF] last month to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta citing an ongoing security threat on the border from drug cartel operations. Although the lawmakers concede that border security is primarily a federal responsibility, they insist state and local police could benefit from wartime gear.

"With the drawdown of U.S. troops and equipment in Iraq, and our role in Afghanistan winding down, it is to be expected that in the next few years there will be a significant amount of surplus equipment that will become available that could be extremely beneficial for border security operations," states the letter, which adds that state and local police departments also are facing budget shortfalls.

California Watch reported last week that agencies across the Golden State have used one such program since the early 1990s to acquire more than $259 million in cast-off military equipment for free. Detailed data obtained and analyzed by California Watch listed everything from M16 rifles to bayonet knives, ammunition cans, armored personnel carriers, bath mats and water canteens. (Search the data here.)

The sheriff of San Joaquin County last year scored a full-tracked tank that his office has since chosen to return because it didn't meet "mission needs." Several counties have received helicopters and other aircraft. Civilian police departments are responsible for maintaining and storing the equipment, which they can peruse and request online.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department so frequently uses the program that it has a whole team of people dedicated to getting the excess military gear with the help of four long-haul semitrailers that criss-cross the country picking it up. California police scooped up more of the equipment last year than ever before in the program's two-decade history, going after 163,344 new and used items valued at more than $26 million. Dollar amounts are based on what the military initially paid.

The letter from Poe and Cuellar reflects an ongoing sense that security on the border requires a military-style approach, even if civilian law enforcement agencies have a much different mission than the military.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is in the process of acquiring "interceptor" gunboats, reportedly with fully automatic machine guns, bulletproof shielding and night-vision capabilities. They operate similarly to swift boats used by the Navy during the Vietnam War. Local and state police already are pushing aggressively for the use of pilotless drones domestically.

The Texas department also purportedly has more than a dozen state-of-the-art helicopters and tactical strike teams that are engaged in a "counterinsurgency" against Mexican drug cartels.

"It certainly is a war in a sense that we're doing what we can to protect Texans and the rest of the nation from clearly a threat that has emerged over the last several years," Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told Fox News in late 2010.

And last year, Texas hired two former generals to conduct a strategic military assessment [PDF] of the border that, among other things, recommended more participation from the National Guard and lauded the Department of Public Safety's "military-like operational campaign against narco-terrorists."

"Texas is the tactical close combat zone and frontline in this conflict," the report says. "Texans have been assaulted by cross-border gangs and narco-terrorist activities."

Fourteen sheriffs from Texas, along with two from New Mexico and Arizona, signed the letter from Poe and Cuellar asking that surplus military equipment be given a new life in the U.S. for the benefit of police on the border.

"For years, the American people have invested their money in equipment that has been used to defend the borders of other nations," Poe wrote in a March 25 statement. "It's time that we use this equipment to secure the United States."

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 and covers homeland security for CIR and California Watch. To read more California Watch stories, click here.