WASHINGTON — Using thousands of military troops to help secure the Southwest border will cost an estimated $210 million under current plans, the Pentagon told Congress on Tuesday, even as questions arose about the scope and duration of the controversial mission.
The total includes $72 million for approximately 5,900 active-duty troops providing support to Customs and Border Protection, plus $138 million so far for 2,100 National Guard troops who have been performing a separate border mission since April, according to a report sent to Congress on Tuesday but not released by the Pentagon.
A copy of the report was obtained by The Associated Press. After the AP published its story the Pentagon released a statement confirming the active-duty portion of the deployments is estimated at $72 million. It did not mention the $138 million in National Guard costs.
The total would grow beyond the current combined estimate of $210 million if the active-duty mission is extended beyond the current completion date of Dec. 15. Officials said an extension appeared likely but had not yet been agreed upon.
The Pentagon also was working on a potential adjustment to the mission that would give the active-duty troops who are operating in Texas, Arizona and California the authority to defend Customs and Border Protection personnel if necessary. The troops, who include military police, are currently authorized to defend themselves.
About 2,800 of the active-duty troops are in South Texas, far from the main migrant caravan in Tijuana, Mexico, south of California. The movement of the Central American migrants into Mexico in October was the stated reason that President Donald Trump ordered the military to provide support for Customs and Border Protection.
Trump, who called the migrant caravan an "invasion," has been accused by critics, including some retired military officers, of using the military deployment as a political tool in the run-up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said Tuesday the Pentagon's cost report shows the mission was a "charade."
"These soldiers spent weeks away from home and the Pentagon wasted millions of taxpayer dollars so President Trump could stoke fears of asylum seekers and try to influence election results," she said. "Using our military men and women as political pawns to support an anti-immigrant agenda is a low point, even for this president."
On Tuesday, Trump said he was sure the troops are happy to be on the border mission, even though it means being away from home over Thanksgiving.
"Don't worry about the Thanksgiving. These are tough people," Trump told reporters before flying to Florida for the holiday. "They know what they're doing and they're great and they've done a great job. You're so worried about the Thanksgiving holiday for them. They are so proud to be representing our country on the border where if you look at what's happening, Mexico, the people from Tijuana are saying, wow these are tough people. They're fighting us."
If, as expected, the mission is extended beyond Dec. 14, at least some of the troops are likely also to be away for Christmas.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has declined to publicly discuss cost estimates for the border mission, saying as recently as last week that he had little confidence in the accuracy of figures he had seen thus far.
"We can estimate costs all we want, I'd prefer to give you real costs. Right now, I can't give that to you," Mattis told reporters last Wednesday when he flew to Texas to see the military's work. "It's the cost of deploying them, it's the cost of transferring their equipment to the border, it's fuel costs, it's all those kinds of costs. So, I just don't want to get into something I can't give you what I believe confidently is accurate."
In its report to Congress on Tuesday, the Pentagon said it expects the deployment of 5,900 active-duty troops through Dec. 15 to cost $72 million, while adding that the mission, which is now three weeks old, is still being refined. The cost includes $19 million for personnel, $20 million for transportation of personnel, equipment and supplies, $28 in operating expenses and $5 million for concertina wire and other border barrier materials.
"The total cost of the operation has yet to be determined and will depend on the total size, duration and scope," the report said.
It said that as of Nov. 14, about $14 million in actual payments for expenses such as travel, supplies and transportation had been reported by the units involved.
The National Guard's border mission, which is being conducted by troops for numerous states, has cost an estimated $138 million as of Tuesday, the Pentagon report said. That mission, involving about 2,100 troops, began in April.