Mary Carman spends her workday sifting through seemingly mundane objects in search of anything that could harm people.
As an inspector of international cargo at Washington Dulles International Airport, she is on the front lines of America’s strengthened homeland security efforts.
Mrs. Carman got her start in 1989 with the Office of Personnel Management’s “Careers Across America” test. At the time, she worked in a medical office, but when Mrs. Carman checked the box labeled “U.S. Customs Service,” she was on her way.
“Where we lived in Michigan was a 65-mile drive to the border,” she said with a laugh. “I went from saying ‘How can I help you’ to ‘What are you carrying?’”
Mrs. Carman was assigned first to Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, the nation’s biggest commercial conduit to Canada, the United States’ largest trading partner. There, she handled big shipments of cargo coming in by truck, the main carrier of Canadian-American goods.
In 1993, Mrs. Carman, now 52 years old, headed to the Washington area and currently lives in Potomac Falls near Sterling, Va., with her husband, David. She is the mother of three grown daughters.
The U.S. Customs Service cargo inspectors at Dulles work out of a small office that is wedged in next to a warehouses for the German airline Lufthansa. With smart blue uniforms, gold-colored badges and pistols on their hips, they look every bit the part of police officers.
In the office, inspectors, looking a bit like bank tellers, answer questions and handle paperwork from people whose goods mostly personal effects are passing through the port of Dulles. Out in the warehouses, which belong to Lufthansa, United Airlines, Air France and a few others, the inspectors keep their eyes open.
They are on the lookout for items coming into the country without proper authorization, counterfeit goods, and especially items that might do harm. This latter category has loomed large since the terrorist attacks.
“There are very few inspectors who have not been affected by September 11,” Mrs. Carman said.
Since then, customs employees have found themselves on the northern border with Canada, working to make inspections tougher yet quicker. They are in Salt Lake City for the Olympics. They are at the Treasury Department, the agency that oversees the U.S. Customs Service. They are in anti-terrorism training.
They are on the prowl for a shifting list of items and any other suspicious bit of cargo “anything,” Mrs. Carman said, “that could do the public harm.” These days, that means firearms and explosives, but also dirty money shipped as cash and documents that might enable terrorists to make mischief or worse.
But the everyday objects still need to get through. On one day this week, that meant small plastic sharpeners for eyeliner pencils. So Mrs. Carman headed into the mostly empty Lufthansa warehouse to clear to grant “entry” in Customs jargon the shipment, which was sitting on a wooden pallet in about 20 white boxes.
First, she asked a Lufthansa employee to cut the plastic binding around the boxes and open one of them. Inside were large, flat boxes with pastel-colored pellets the size of lipstick cases.
“They are in fact what they appear to be,” Mrs. Carman said.
But a few things are not in order. This particular shipment, she notes came from Germany via Paris. Each box carries an “IAD” sticker similar to the ones stuck on luggage that comes through the airport. All fine and good, she said.
But many of the boxes are warped and still a little damp, probably because the cargo sat on the tarmac somewhere in the rain. She notes that on the paperwork, and any damage is something that will have to be settled between the customs broker the person who arranged the shipment and the shipper, in this case Lufthansa.
That’s not the only problem.
The individual units are not marked for sale. Customs, Mrs. Carman said, wants to see the product as it will appear for consumers, which the agency is looking out for. That omission will earn the shipment a demerit, and customs will seek clarification from the shipment’s customs broker.
“More likely than not,” the products will make a quick exit out of the warehouse and onto the store shelf, she said. Shipments that are not so lucky have to be returned to the sender. If the issue is contraband Mrs. Carman has seized plenty of illegal drugs in her time customs will seize the shipment entirely.
Mostly, though, Mrs. Carman’s job involves jumping through the right hoops on behalf of the public and the shippers. Customs is the “eyes and ears” of all sorts of federal agencies, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Environmental Protection Agency, that do not have agents at the border, Mrs. Carman said.
“I like the variety,” she said. “I’m on the phone a lot.”