- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

It’s one of the toughest assignments in America: Keep terrorists from sneaking into the United States while ensuring the border is open to legitimate trade and travel.

But Assistant Commissioner Jay Ahern, who heads the Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), says the agency is up to the task.

“Knowing the destruction that can happen, there is a sense of urgency that drives all of us,” Mr. Ahern said during an interview at his headquarters in Washington. “Every day I have a sick feeling in my stomach worrying whether I have addressed every problem, done everything I could to prevent another attack. And I know I’m not alone.

“The terrorists continue to plot against us; the threat is not over,” he said. “While I am confident we have a much higher level of security today than we did on September 11, a lot more needs to be done. But we are getting there.”

CBP officers are assigned along 7,000 miles of land border with Canada and Mexico and perform daily inspections of more than 1.2 million passengers and pedestrians at the nation’s 326 land-, air- and seaports.

Carrying out the mission, Mr. Ahern said, entails security improvements at and between the nation’s ports of entry and extending a “zone of security” beyond the country’s physical borders, “so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line.”

By partnering with other countries through the Container Security Initiative, Mr. Ahern said, CBP has improved its targeting systems and increased the amount of information it has on people and goods bound for the United States.

Mr. Ahern said the initiative addresses the threat posed by the potential for terrorist use of maritime containers to deliver a weapon. He said it enables CBP, working with host countries, to examine high-risk maritime containerized cargo at foreign seaports before they are loaded onto ships bound for the United States.

Teams of officers from CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement work with their foreign counterparts in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Central America.

Mr. Ahern, a veteran U.S. Customs Service agent with 31 years in federal law enforcement, said 50 foreign ports are covered by the program — about 87 percent of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific containerized cargo shipped to the United States — and the number of ports will grow to 58 by the end of this fiscal year.

Mr. Ahern described as “unrealistic” efforts by some members of Congress to require the scanning of 100 percent of the containers entering the U.S. through its seaports. He noted that many of the 700 ports that now send cargo to the United States have neither the means, the methods nor the inclination to participate in the program.

“I think we need a better sense of both the cost and the potential effectiveness of such a program before we put billions of dollars into it,” he said.

Mr. Ahern also called the standardization of travel documents “a critical step” in supporting CBP efforts to better secure the border and nation’s ports, where about 90,000 people a year, or about 250 a day, are apprehended with fraudulent documents, including criminal aliens attempting to enter the country.

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