CBP aims to deliver 'unified' border strategy

Wednesday - 8/31/2011, 5:30am EDT

Ruben Gomez, Federal News Radio

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By Ruben Gomez
Federal News Radio

Combining parts of three very different federal departments isn't easy. But it's exactly what the government did, when it created Customs and Border Protection less than two years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Officials launched the agency on March 1, 2003, not long after President George W. Bush signed the law creating the Department of Homeland Security, with the goal of better protecting U.S. land, air and sea ports-of-entry.

"When I came in this agency, it took three port directors to run a port of entry," Assistant Commissioner of Field Operations Thomas Winkowski said. "One from Customs, one from Immigration and one from Agriculture."

Those major components resided within separate federal departments, including Treasury, Justice and Agriculture. Federal leaders who launched CBP hoped to break down barriers to information sharing among the components.

Moving employees and functions under the CBP umbrella required persistence and a strong sense of mission, Winkowski told reporters at a roundtable about border security developments since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The creation of Customs and Border Protection ... has enabled us to have a unified border management strategy," he said. "We've played a leadership role in creating an organization, and changing a culture in an organization, from three different departments with three different ways of looking at borders to ... the culture of a single border agency."

Winkowski oversees CBP's largest component, the Office of Field Operations, with a budget of $3.6 billion. His office is responsible for a staff of 28,000 law enforcement agents, analysts and other employees.

Finding high-risk travelers

CBP has initiated a number national security reforms since its inception, including a National Targeting Center aimed at identifying high-risk air travelers before they enter the U.S.

"That facility has grown tremendously," Winkowski said. "The level of expertise and the coordination with the other government agencies, such as the FBI and the Coast Guard, and state and locals, and obviously [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and other entities, provide for a coordinated effort."

CBP has also touted the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which reduced the number of valid identification documents certain travelers entering the U.S. can use at ports of entry. The initiative had its roots in recommendations made by the 9-11 Commission"

"We had over 8,000 different types of documents," Winkowski said. Now only a handful are accepted and the documents, such as passport cards and enhanced driver's licenses, include radio frequency identification technology that helps agents reduce processing and wait time.

Better cargo screening

Customs and Border Protection has also increased screening for ocean cargo bound for the U.S., by requiring cargo carriers to submit manifests before their ships set sail.

"We know 24 hours prior to cargo being laden on a vessel overseas what that cargo is, where it's going, where it's been, who the consignee is and all the other information that we need in order" to decide whether to allow it on board, Winkowski said.

CBP has stationed agents in more than thirty countries, partly for this purpose.

The U.S. government has forged agreements with numerous foreign governments and private sector partners to make the screening program a reality.