WASHINGTON — Robert C. Bonner had not even moved into his new office as head of the U.S. Customs Service when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned the routine task of border control into an urgent national priority and changed his job forever.
The north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on the Customs Service's largest office complex outside of Washington, destroying the eight-story building. (All 790 employees got out safely.) Customs inspectors, meanwhile, were urgently needed at the U.S.-Canadian border. And nobody knew what new threats might be coming by land, air or sea.
"In a lot of ways, I started as the customs commissioner that day," said Bonner, 59, a former U.S. attorney, federal judge and private attorney from Los Angeles. "To say I hit the ground running would be somewhat of a gross understatement."
The war on terrorism has had a fateful effect on customs, a venerable federal agency that has long suffered from a shrinking mandate in an increasingly global economy. Suddenly, its expertise, gained in little-publicized battles against drug dealers and smugglers, is prized again.
The shadowy "hawala" system of financing favored by terrorists, for example, has parallels with the black-market peso exchange used by South American drug traffickers, said Bonner, who ran the Drug Enforcement Administration in the early 1990s. A customs database on the mundane topic of commodity shipments has pointed investigators toward possible terrorist financing schemes involving money and diamonds.
Customs even lent New York City 100 radiation detectors to help patrol Times Square against terrorism on New Year's Eve.
"They've got the expertise. What they've needed is the support," said Jonathan M. Winer, a former State Department official and attorney in Washington. "For the first time in many, many years, people are recognizing the importance of having a strong and effective Customs Service."
In Bonner's brief tenure, the Customs Service has tried to become the firewall blocking terrorists and their weapons from breaching U.S. borders, an effort that is testing its resources to the limit but also drawing upon experience gained in other struggles. Among its initiatives:
* Operation Green Quest, a multi-agency task force led by customs, is investigating terrorist funding sources, including charities, banks, smuggling, counterfeiting and credit card fraud. The effort already has led to a crackdown on Al Barakaat, a money-wiring network in Somalia founded by an associate of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and certain Islamic charities operating inside the United States.
* Operation Shield America, in which customs has urged private firms to blow the whistle if they are approached for suspicious purchases that might help make weapons of mass destruction. Exports to be watched include neutron generators that help trigger nuclear bombs and fermenting equipment that helps produce biological weapons.
* Operation Oasis, a little-publicized effort in which customs inspectors have seized more than $8 million in undeclared cash that was en route overseas and suspected of being intended for terrorists.
* A "level one" alert at U.S. borders, prompting more rigorous inspections of travelers--with unexpected results. Drug seizures plunged immediately after Sept. 11 as drug traffickers initially declined to test the border alert. But smuggling efforts quickly resumed, and customs drug seizures skyrocketed. Inspectors seized more than a million pounds of illegal drugs in the final four months of last year, a 28% jump from the same period in 2000.
Shipping Containers Are Source of Concern
U.S. officials also are taking a hard look at America's harbors, traditionally peaceful drop-off points for ocean containers that contain almost half of U.S. imports.
Before Sept. 11, a major concern at customs was how to streamline the entry of those containers into the United States, reflecting the demands of business for easy movement of goods and the over-arching political sentiment that customs' red tape should not clog the machinery of the global economy. Indeed, customs' original mission--collecting import duties for an emerging republic--was shrinking in value as the United States committed itself to a world of free trade.
But the very containers that symbolize world trade have come to represent a threat to peaceful commerce among nations. In October, for example, Italian police discovered a suspected Al Qaeda operative inside an ocean container equipped with a bed, toilet, satellite phone, computer, camera, airport maps and airport security passes.
"A nuke in a box," Bonner warned this month, "would bring the global economy to its knees. . . . The shipping of sea containers would stop."