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10 August 2004

The Rest of the Story, Securing U.S. Borders Post 9/11

Op-ed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner

(This column by Robert C. Bonner, who is Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was published in The Washington Times August 10 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

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Securing U.S. Borders Post 9/11
By Robert C. Bonner

With the issuance of the September 11 commission report, the American public now has a clearer picture of what went wrong before September 11. This information is critical to our national security. But what's not in the report - and what Americans should also know - are the steps the administration has taken to correct the deficiencies that existed before September 11 and to make our nation far more secure today than it was three years ago.

As commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, my focus is on border security, and with regard to that issue, the September 11 commission report offered two valid criticisms: First, that "protecting borders was not a national security issue before 9/11," and second, that there was a lack of focus by the U.S. border agencies - INS and U.S. Customs - on the emerging terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda.

Before September 11, there was no single agency dedicated to securing our borders. National defense was primarily a military obligation. Since September 11, however, the administration has correctly declared border protection - the need to secure our air, land and sea borders against terrorist penetration - a national-security priority. The president's decision to establish the Department of Homeland Security was a direct result of this priority.

Likewise, before September 11, there was no single government agency charged with the responsibility of securing all aspects of our nation's borders. On March 1, 2003, however, that changed when the border functions of four separate agencies - Customs, Immigration, Border Patrol and Agriculture (housed in three different departments of government) - were brought together in a single agency: the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, charged with the priority mission of detecting and preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States. CBP creates what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge calls "One face at the border," one agency to manage, secure and control our borders, all ports of entry and points in between. The concept of one single, unified agency responsible for the protection of our borders represented a sea change in the historically fragmented efforts of border agencies and has made CBP a full partner in our national counterterrorism effort.

Before September 11, no national level targeting of people or goods crossing our borders existed. Today, CBP targets both people and cargo to identify possible terrorist links and threats. Through CBP's National Targeting Center, there is robust sharing of intelligence and information relevant to the terrorist threat. The center receives strategic intelligence daily from DHS' Information Analysis unit and converts that intelligence to targeting rules that help identify high-risk cargo and people headed to the United States. This intelligence gives us advance notice of who and what is coming to our shores so we can give greater scrutiny to cargo and individuals who pose a potential terrorist threat. Since September 11, all cargo container shipments are evaluated for terrorist links and risks before they arrive in U.S. seaports. All containers identified as posing a potential terrorist threat are given a security inspection, using sophisticated detection equipment, before being allowed to enter the United States.

Today, CBP has 30,000 uniformed officers, stationed at and between all ports of entry, who are targeting and exploiting al Qaeda's travel patterns and vulnerabilities to better identify potential terrorist operatives trying to enter the United States. Today, CBP officers have access to a far more complete watch list of known and suspected terrorists, which increases their chances of intercepting terrorists attempting to enter the United States. CBP officers also routinely use their authority to question persons entering the United States, and they use U.S. immigration laws and immigration authority to deny entry to individuals who may pose a terrorist threat to the United States.

Before September 11, none of these measures existed. Americans need to know that because of the steps taken by the administration, our borders are far more secure today than they were before September 11. And, America is safer.

(Robert C. Bonner is Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.)

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