Congress passes legislation requiring polygraphs for CBP agents

Bill seeks to counteract corruption within the nation’s largest law enforcement agency.

The House on Monday unanimously passed a bill that will require Customs and Border Protection to administer polygraph examinations to all applications for law enforcement positions within the bureau and to reinvestigate law enforcement personnel every five years. The Senate passed similar legislation by unanimous consent in September.

Currently, less than 15 percent of job applicants undergo polygraph examinations and as of March, CBP had a backlog of nearly 10,000 required periodic background reinvestigations. CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with 20,000 officers stationed at air, sea and land ports of entry; 20,000 Border Patrol agents operating between land ports of entry; and 1,100 air and marine interdiction agents.

The 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act requires CBP to begin periodic background reinvestigations for law enforcement personnel within 180 days after the bill is signed into law. Within two years, the bureau must begin administering polygraphs to all applicants for law enforcement positions. The bill also requires the Homeland Security Department to provide compliance progress reports every six months for two years.

The bill comes as corruption allegations are on the rise at CBP. The Homeland Security inspector general reported earlier this year 129 CBP officials have been arrested on corruption charges since 2003 and during 2009, 576 investigations were opened on allegations of improper conduct by CBP officials.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP personnel, said in a statement, "NTEU has concerns regarding the reliability of polygraph examinations and would object to their use in reinvestigations."

CBP Spokeswoman Kelly Ivahnenko said in an e-mail the polygraph examination the legislation requires "is an important and effective tool in helping to combat [corruption], by serving as a complementary bookend to the background investigation process that all employees undergo."

Due to the unique nature of CBP agents' responsibilities, personnel working in high-risk areas such as along the Southwest border are vulnerable to bribery or corruption, she said.

Drug cartels and transnational criminals looking for a "perceived weak point" in border security have targeted CBP agents, Ivahnenko said. "We feel very strongly that it's a very important step to police our workforce, and we work with FBI, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and partners on the Joint Border Security Task Forces to investigate mission-comprising corruption," she wrote.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., who introduced the legislation in the House, said in statement that Mexican drug cartels are driving an "explosion of violence" in Mexico and the Southwest United States.

"If we are going to ensure border security and safety, we absolutely must have a strong and reliable Border Patrol force," he added. "The vast majority of Border Patrol agents are brave and honorable men and women who work tirelessly to protect our country. However, the corruption of even a few of these individuals could put lives in danger and greatly undermine our efforts to fight the cartels and stop the smuggling of drugs, weapons and people across our border."