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."
The UAE Embassy in Washington referred questions to Etihad Airways, the UAE's national carrier and the only airline with regular service to the U.S. from Abu Dhabi. The airline, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family, did not return calls.
In addition to streamlining arrivals for international air travelers while screening them for security purposes, officials say, the centers reduce pressure on arrival checkpoints at overloaded destinations such as O'Hare International Airport in Chicago or the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. CBP now operates 14 pre-clearance facilities: eight at Canada's major airports, two each in the Bahamas and Ireland, and one apiece in Bermuda and Aruba.
Congress ordered the expansion of the pre-clearance system after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks involving hijacked airliners, but no centers have opened since 2006, in part because they are expensive to build, operate and staff. Moreover, U.S. officials generally insist that CBP personnel at pre-clearance centers operate armed and with full legal authority — a measure that few countries are willing to allow.
The center is likely to be a boon for Etihad Airways, and some U.S. airlines have argued that a pre-clearance center at the desert outpost would give Etihad an unfair advantage over domestic carriers and other foreign airlines.
If established, U.S.-bound travelers from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe will have a choice of connecting to Etihad in Abu Dhabi, where they can pre-clear customs checks; or connecting to a carrier at a different hub, which could result in significant delays at U.S. customs centers.
Ms. Napolitano has said the center's success should be measured by how much it boosts airline traffic in Abu Dhabi, which has lagged Dubai as the commercial and trading hub for the seven emirates.
In December 2011, just days after signing a letter of intent with the UAE, she told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, "I think we'll see travelers move to the pre-cleared routes. I think you'll measure [success] by how travel routes adjust."
Reps. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican, and Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would require Homeland Security to provide Congress with an economic impact assessment before opening another pre-clearance site.
Also in November, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, introduced a bill that would require a security assessment before pre-clearance operations can be expanded to more countries or airports and would preclude a foreign government or entity from paying for such operations, as is planned for Abu Dhabi.
In congressional testimony, CBP officials estimated the total annual cost of an Abu Dhabi pre-clearance center to be $5 million, but said the UAE airports authority would reimburse costs up to the legal limit, leaving CBP to pay less than $500,000 a year.
In April, Mr. Thompson, Mrs. Lee and 12 others wrote to Ms. Napolitano, expressing concern that the proposed center "sets a dangerous precedent of deploying customs resources based on the availability of third-party financing — not national security, common sense, or the needs of traveling taxpayers."
The letter raised numerous questions regarding security risks and benefits and the extent of CBP's involvement in the negotiations. Many of those questions remain unanswered, said congressional sources who reviewed Homeland Security responses restricted from public release.
Some analysts have defended the proposal.
Jayson Ahern, a principal of Beltway security consultants the Chertoff Group and a 33-year veteran of the CBP and the U.S. Customs Service, said foreign terrorists continue to be fascinated with aviation as a target.
He characterized a pre-clearance center in Abu Dhabi, staffed by armed CBP agents with "full law enforcement authority" and reimbursed by the UAE up to 85 percent of its cost, as a great deal.
"It's as close to a perfect package as can be negotiated," he said.
Two of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks, Marwan al-Shahhi and Fayiz Ahmad, were UAE nationals. In addition, U.S. security officials have described Abu Dhabi as a hub for terrorist travel, especially from countries such as Yemen and Afghanistan, where direct flight to the U.S. is impossible.
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