- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

They have no law enforcement training, are not armed and seldom work at the primary inspection booths along U.S. borders. They are scientists and they know about bugs, bacteria and botulism.

But they have become an important part of a border enforcement team now assigned the task of protecting the United States against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. And as new members of the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), they take their assignment very seriously.

“Most people are oblivious to what we do,” said Jacqueline M. Klahn, port director for Agriculture Quarantine Inspection (AQI) in Buffalo, N.Y. “But there is a heightened awareness at our borders now and we are a part of that, and we’re looking to contribute as best we can to the many ongoing efforts to make the border even more secure.”

The nation’s agricultural inspection program has been around for nearly a hundred years, although few Americans really know what it does or why, or the critical role it plays in safeguarding the country’s agriculture and economy.

It is the frontline of defense against the threat of pests and diseases that could be brought into the country by the more than 250,000 people who cross daily into the United States.

“It’s our job to protect America’s vast agricultural and natural resources from attack by invasive pests and diseases,” Mrs. Klahn said. “Add to that the new search for the weapons of mass destruction that terrorists might bring into the country, and it’s quite a challenge.”

Until March 1, agriculture inspectors fell under the Agriculture Department as part of that agency’s plant protection and quarantine division. They are now housed within CBP — nearly 3,000 employees, mostly inspectors and technicians who, with the help of detection dogs known as the “Beagle Brigade,” screen passengers, baggage, plants, fruits, vegetables, mail, food, vehicles and cargo at more than 110 ports of entry for exotic pests and diseases.

Last year, they cleared more than a billion travelers, millions of pieces of luggage and more than 500,000 parcels of mail. More than 100,000 aircraft that brought passengers and cargo into the United States also underwent the inspections.

With its increased assignment, a key question is whether the agriculture inspectors at the ports of entry should be armed. It is a decision that is hotly debated among the inspectors themselves and other members of CBP.

In November 2002, Michael E. Randall, president of the National Association of Agricultural Employees, questioned in a letter to Congress whether agriculture inspectors were suited for law enforcement assignments. He said they did not seek employment in law enforcement and might be better suited to making scientific decisions concerning agricultural regulations and risk assessments.

“Most casual and inadvertent smugglers would never bring in prohibited items again, once educated to the problem,” he said. “This is not true of a person or agent who intentionally seeks to introduce an agricultural pest into our country. Confronting this type of intended threat is a job for a trained law enforcement officer or the military.”

Mr. Randall argued that Homeland Security should add personnel to other CBP agencies already “trained and otherwise suited” to the job of law enforcement to search out terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

But not all agriculture inspectors agree.

“If that’s what has to be done, we can qualify for the job,” said Charles R. Merckel, agricultural port director at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, the busiest port crossing in the country. “But that decision is not ours. We all know the border can be a dangerous place, with a lot of evil-doers trying to cross.

“But we are ready, willing and able to do what we can to help secure this border,” he said.


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