Customs Chief Survives Difficult Start


Robert C. Bonner had not even moved into his new office as head of the U.S. Customs Service when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned the routine task of border control into an urgent national priority and changed his job forever.

The north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on the Customs Service’s largest office complex outside of Washington, destroying the eight-story building. (All 790 employees got out safely.) Customs inspectors, meanwhile, were urgently needed at the U.S.-Canadian border. And nobody knew what new threats might be coming by land, air or sea.

“In a lot of ways, I started as the customs commissioner that day,” said Bonner, 59, a former U.S. attorney, federal judge and private attorney from Los Angeles. “To say I hit the ground running would be somewhat of a gross understatement.”


The war on terrorism has had a fateful effect on customs, a venerable federal agency that has long suffered from a shrinking mandate in an increasingly global economy. Suddenly, its expertise, gained in little-publicized battles against drug dealers and smugglers, is prized again.

The shadowy “hawala” system of financing favored by terrorists, for example, has parallels with the black-market peso exchange used by South American drug traffickers, said Bonner, who ran the Drug Enforcement Administration in the early 1990s. A customs database on the mundane topic of commodity shipments has pointed investigators toward possible terrorist financing schemes involving money and diamonds.

Customs even lent New York City 100 radiation detectors to help patrol Times Square against terrorism on New Year’s Eve.

“They’ve got the expertise. What they’ve needed is the support,” said Jonathan M. Winer, a former State Department official and attorney in Washington. “For the first time in many, many years, people are recognizing the importance of having a strong and effective Customs Service.”

In Bonner’s brief tenure, the Customs Service has tried to become the firewall blocking terrorists and their weapons from breaching U.S. borders, an effort that is testing its resources to the limit but also drawing upon experience gained in other struggles. Among its initiatives:

* Operation Green Quest, a multi-agency task force led by customs, is investigating terrorist funding sources, including charities, banks, smuggling, counterfeiting and credit card fraud. The effort already has led to a crackdown on Al Barakaat, a money-wiring network in Somalia founded by an associate of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and certain Islamic charities operating inside the United States.

* Operation Shield America, in which customs has urged private firms to blow the whistle if they are approached for suspicious purchases that might help make weapons of mass destruction. Exports to be watched include neutron generators that help trigger nuclear bombs and fermenting equipment that helps produce biological weapons.

* Operation Oasis, a little-publicized effort in which customs inspectors have seized more than $8 million in undeclared cash that was en route overseas and suspected of being intended for terrorists.

* A “level one” alert at U.S. borders, prompting more rigorous inspections of travelers--with unexpected results. Drug seizures plunged immediately after Sept. 11 as drug traffickers initially declined to test the border alert. But smuggling efforts quickly resumed, and customs drug seizures skyrocketed. Inspectors seized more than a million pounds of illegal drugs in the final four months of last year, a 28% jump from the same period in 2000.

Shipping Containers Are Source of Concern

U.S. officials also are taking a hard look at America’s harbors, traditionally peaceful drop-off points for ocean containers that contain almost half of U.S. imports.

Before Sept. 11, a major concern at customs was how to streamline the entry of those containers into the United States, reflecting the demands of business for easy movement of goods and the over-arching political sentiment that customs’ red tape should not clog the machinery of the global economy. Indeed, customs’ original mission--collecting import duties for an emerging republic--was shrinking in value as the United States committed itself to a world of free trade.

But the very containers that symbolize world trade have come to represent a threat to peaceful commerce among nations. In October, for example, Italian police discovered a suspected Al Qaeda operative inside an ocean container equipped with a bed, toilet, satellite phone, computer, camera, airport maps and airport security passes.

“A nuke in a box,” Bonner warned this month, “would bring the global economy to its knees. . . . The shipping of sea containers would stop.”

A small percentage of the containers are examined once they arrive in the U.S., and Bonner is proposing a system in which cargo ships have their contents screened overseas before they reach U.S. waters. Customs is also trying to devise a standard for electronic seals that could signal any tampering with such shipments.

“The reality is that the security in the megaports outside the United States is far better than at ports in the U.S.,” he said. “We just have not paid attention to that issue. . . . I don’t want to be thinking about these things after they’ve happened.”

Bonner brings to the challenge a long resume of law enforcement experience and a career that is not easily categorized. Outside the office, he enjoys tennis and chess and works out on a treadmill. On the job, he is known as somewhat aloof and cerebral but hard-driving in pursuit of his aims.

When he ran DEA, Bonner sought to impose what became known as the “kingpin” strategy, pushing field officers to go after leaders of drug organizations rather than foot soldiers. He also sought to revamp the far-flung agency, demanding a more hands-on role for DEA headquarters. “If you’re trying to have the greatest potential impact against multinational criminal enterprises, you have to be at least as well organized as they are,” he said at the time.

Leadership of DEA Was Met With Praise

Supporters say his efforts to reform the DEA met with success and reflect a management sense that might serve him well in his new job: “Obviously, he didn’t win the war on drugs--no one has and no one will,” said Jan L. Handzlik, a Los Angeles attorney and friend of Bonner who has worked closely with him over the years. “But in going after the major cocaine traffickers and a number of heroin organizations, and attempting to reallocate the resources of his agency, he had tremendous success.”

Some close observers of the Customs Service maintain Bonner is off to a good start. “His baptism by fire has been much more difficult than for any other commissioner,” said Susan K. Ross, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in customs issues. She believes Bonner “has been able to do a good job” of balancing the agency’s various priorities, all in a time of crisis.

But others are doubtful. Despite growing support on Capitol Hill, customs has struggled for White House support of a bigger budget. Beyond that, the most effective reforms in protecting the U.S. heartland from terrorist infiltration will require a level of cooperation among rival federal agencies and international counterparts that has rarely been accomplished.

Bonner is a competent agency boss, said Jack Blum, former special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But the question is, is he going to be able to deal with the organizational, political and cultural problems and bring the operation into the 20th century, much less then 21st?”

Others fear that counterterrorism duties could overwhelm an agency that lacked the resources to do its job fully even before Sept. 11. Since then, customs employees have contended with shifts as long as 16 hours, workweeks as long as seven days and reassignments to airports and borders far from home.

Terrorist Threat Remains Paramount

“I just don’t know how long the employees can keep it up--and be healthy and safe,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents customs workers.

One cautionary note came last fall, when the White House rejected Bonner’s request for $350 million to add 1,631 positions to his work force of 20,000. Yet Congress, reflecting changing public attitudes, answered right back by reinstating much of the money. Even Bonner conceded that the battle against terrorism may force some “robbing Peter to pay Paul"--pushing some efforts, such as fraud investigations, further down the priority list.

But of the terrorist threat, he vowed: “That’s the one that we have to address and we will address.”