Border agency merger already paying dividends, official says

The merger of four federal border agencies into the new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has already tightened security along the U.S. border, an official guiding the reorganization said Wednesday.

Andrew Maner, chief of staff and director of the transition management office at the new agency, said the border reorganization paid dividends during Operation Liberty Shield, the Homeland Security Department's effort to protect the U.S. from terrorism during the war in Iraq.

"I can't tell you as a manager how powerful it was, during Liberty Shield, to be able to put out one piece of guidance telling them how to manage the border," he said at a Washington briefing held by Equity International, Inc., a Washington-based business development firm.

Created to handle inspection chores along the border, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection includes elements from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, Border Patrol, and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. On March 1, officials unified the chain of command at these agencies, a management shift that has improved security on the ground, Maner said.

For example, a single official now heads inspections at all airports and ports of entry, and all bureau inspectors now carry pocket-sized radiation detectors, he said. Border officials also have combined their processes for targeting suspicious cargo, according to Maner. He added that inspectors in the field have not resisted combining their operations.

"We haven't solved the [different] uniform problem yet, but these people are working together, and they don't need bureaucrats from Washington to tell them to work together."

The agency now is examining how to manage the different payroll and travel systems that its employees use, according to Maner. "It is safe to say we are looking at how our people are paid and what travel system they are on as we move them into our bureau," he said Wednesday. Janet Hale, undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department, is designing the department's approach to administrative support systems.

Maner said reorganization planners have tried to avoid disrupting field operations. "We're going to handle this merger so our operating offices can continue to do their jobs," he said. He added that while former Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner leads the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the agency should not be viewed as an expansion of Customs. "This isn't a Customs takeover, this is a brand new agency."

Brian Goebel, counselor and senior policy adviser at the bureau, said at the event that the bureau is considering more options for pre-notification of cargo heading to the United States. "We are considering extending the principles of advance manifest data and automated targeting to all modes under the [2002] Trade Act rulemaking," he said. Last December, Customs issued a rule requiring carriers to provide 24-hour pre-shipping notification of the contents of sea-bound shipping containers headed to U.S. ports.

Goebel outlined several needs of the bureau. They include advanced information on people and goods arriving in the United States, sophisticated and automated targeting tools and databases, and programs for distinguishing high- and low-risk shipments.

Maner said the department is "trying to do away with the myth" that customs inspects only 2 percent of shipments. "Customs inspects 100 percent of the high-risk cargo," he said.

Other needs Goebel mentioned include detection equipment, well-trained inspectional workforce, and improved information flowing from intelligence and law enforcement. He also said a U.S.-Canada program for speeding pre-cleared trucks across the border is being looked at for the Mexican border as well.

Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that Homeland Security officials are considering extending a rule requiring 24-hour pre-shipping notification of the contents of sea-bound containers headed to the United States to other modes of transportation. On Wednesday, Brian Goebel, counselor and senior policy adviser at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said officials were simply exploring options to get more information on cargo in advance.

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