- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2010

The failure by Congress and the White House to confirm a permanent head of the agency that protects America’s borders against terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants is a national security concern, say three former U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioners who first warned key senators more than a month ago about their failure to act on the pending nomination.

“CBP is too important in too many areas to be without a commissioner for so long, and the time line concerns us,” said former commissioners W. Ralph Basham, Robert Bonner and Raymond Kelly, noting that the agency performs “a vital security and law enforcement role” in protecting U.S. borders.

In a letter, the former commissioners called on Sens. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, respectively, to take action on the pending nomination of Alan D. Bersin to head CBP.

They argued that while CBP is in the “very capable hands of senior career executives who are performing their jobs admirably … they are constrained without presidentially appointed and confirmed leadership at the head of the agency.”

The former commissioners noted they were aware of the “committee’s busy calendar on major policy matters, such as health care reform legislation,” but said the responsibility for action on the nomination “now rests with the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate.”

“Having experienced the nomination process ourselves, we would hope that the ‘forest’ of filling this critical position expeditiously is not getting lost in the ‘trees’ of pre-hearing questions designed to elicit policy positions or parochial commitments from the nominee before he even has the benefit of knowing the agency from the inside,” they said.

The former commissioners also said the “current administration is not blameless” for the delay in filling the vacancy, adding that it did not formally submit Mr. Bersin’s nomination until September.

Mr. Basham, one of the former commissioners who wrote the letter to the committee, told The Washington Times on Thursday he hoped the committee will soon schedule a hearing date. He said it is important to have a fully appointed commissioner in order to deal with staffing, funding and other long-term strategy issues.

“Someone who’s in an acting role is hesitant to set those long-term goals, not knowing how the next commissioner is going to react to something,” he said.

Mr. Basham, now a principal at Command Consulting Group in Washington, complimented the work of CBP’s acting head, former U.S. Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar, saying he had “tremendous confidence” in the chief to carry on the required day-to-day operations.

Daniel J. Kaniewski, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said the real problem is that Finance Committee is too preoccupied with health care reform to efficiently handle Mr. Bersin’s nomination.

“What you’re seeing, in my view, from a policy perspective is a reflection of a dysfunctional oversight system,” he said.

Mr. Kaniewski, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, noted that 80 congressional committees and subcommittees have oversight responsibility for the Department of Homeland Security, of which CBP is a part.

“The bottom line is that it is a significant security concern not having a full leadership team at such a critical homeland security agency,” he said. “This is the agency we entrust to keep dangerous people out of this country.”

He also said CBP is responsible for reviewing the passenger manifests for flights coming into the U.S. from foreign countries — a responsibility emphasized with the Christmas Day attempt by an apparent jihadist to take down a commercial airliner with explosives hidden in his underwear.

“This was a concern for many, that the nomination was moving slowly before the Christmas Day attack,” he said. “After the Christmas Day attack, it’s an outrage that the Senate Finance Committee has not made this nomination a priority.”

A staffer for the Senate Finance Committee, which handles the nomination, said the process has not stalled. Jill Gerber, a spokeswoman for Mr. Grassley, said staff for both him and Mr. Baucus “continue the committee’s standard vetting process.”

“We’ve completed a few rounds of questions and document requests, and there’s a scheduled sit-down meeting next week with staff,” she told The Times in e-mail last week.

Mr. Aguilar currently oversees the daily operations of CBP’s 57,000-employee work force and manages an operating budget of more than $11 billion. He was named to the post on Jan. 3, following the retirement of Acting Commissioner Jayson P. Ahern.

President Obama nominated Mr. Bersin, an assistant secretary for international affairs and special representative for border affairs in the Department of Homeland Security, to serve as CBP commissioner on Sept. 22.

A Finance Committee aide, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said staff members “evaluate nomination information as quickly as possible after it has been submitted to the committee and will continue to do so.”

Mr. Bersin was named to his Department of Homeland Security post in April 2009. Before that, he served as chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, California’s secretary of education, superintendent of public education in San Diego, chairman of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California in the Bill Clinton administration.

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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