Negotiators skirt customs, make flights easier from UAE to U.S.

Top officials at the Homeland Security Department skirted customary channels in negotiating a special U.S. customs facility at an international airport in the United Arab Emirates, and then some advised on UAE security-related projects after leaving the government, according to congressional and business sources.

Formal plans for a pre-clearance center in Abu Dhabi, one of the seven monarchies that make up the UAE, have sparked congressional concerns about U.S. border security and about the economic impact on the airline industry, where the plan faces opposition from some domestic carriers and airline unions.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the Homeland Security Department agency usually responsible for negotiating pre-clearance centers at a handful of airports around the world. Pre-clearance lets federal customs officials search bags and cargo and clear travelers before they board flights destined for the U.S.

Congressional sources said, however, that the plan was not forged by CBP but by top officials at Homeland Security. They said CBP became formally involved in negotiations as much as a year after the department and the UAE signed a letter of intent in December 2011.

“Prior to formal discussions on Abu Dhabi,” one staffer said, “it is not clear that CBP was involved except to provide guidance to senior [Homeland Security] officials who were involved with the UAE from the beginning. It appears that CBP was used as a resource but not brought in until a formal stage at the end.”

CBP officials did not respond to questions about the agreement with the UAE, which was signed in April.

In congressional testimony, agency leaders have said the center will allow them to keep people and cargo that raise security concerns off U.S.-bound flights from Abu Dhabi.

Lawmakers have questioned the genesis of the plan for other reasons.

Noah Kroloff, who was chief of staff under Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, was engaged in the pre-clearance center negotiations, business and congressional sources said.

Before a final agreement was reached, he left the department to form a consulting firm, Global Security & Intelligence Strategies. Other partners include David Aguilar, former deputy commissioner of CBP, and former senior Homeland Security adviser Dennis K. Burke — all of whom, like Mr. Kroloff, have Arizona-based ties to Ms. Napolitano, who retired in September.

GSIS has since acted on behalf of UAE interests seeking security expertise, said a source familiar with the firm.

The precise nature of the services GSIS provided is unclear. A GSIS spokeswoman declined to discuss the firm’s portfolio and referred questions about Mr. Kroloff’s role in the pre-clearance center negotiations to Homeland Security.

In a statement, the firm said, “GSIS does not represent a foreign government nor does it represent an entity engaged in preclearance discussions.”

Homeland Security officials did not answer questions about pre-clearance center negotiations or Mr. Kroloff’s role.

Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard said a new pre-clearance center will allow CBP agents to screen more passengers before they board flights bound for the United States, “further underscoring our commitment to layered security while also streamlining legitimate travel and commerce.”

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