WASHINGTON — Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner disclosed Tuesday that he was stepping down after four tumultuous years as head of a key anti-terrorism agency.
"I moved back to Washington on Sept. 10, 2001, and I've been going a mile a minute ever since the morning of 9/11," Bonner, 63, said in an interview. "I believe I have accomplished a lot here, but that's for others to judge. I do need a change." He is considering a return to private law practice in Los Angeles.
A former federal judge, prosecutor and Drug Enforcement Administration chief, Bonner took over an agency focused on financial crimes and smuggling and plunged into a new mission: preventing terrorists and their weapons from entering the U.S.
The Customs Service, then part of the Treasury Department, doubled in size to 42,000 employees as it took over the Border Patrol, immigration inspection and agricultural inspection to become U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the new Homeland Security Department.
"I think he's had one of the hardest jobs in government trying to blend those workforces together," said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University. "The last four years is an eternity given the job he's been in. I kind of admire him for his durability under extreme pressure."
Bonner's departure, expected to be announced today by the Bush administration, will leave Homeland Security with three crucial vacancies. Immigration, Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be without permanent directors.
The customs service traces its history to the early days of the republic, when it collected duties on imports and chased smugglers in sailing ships.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency had to prepare for an entirely different kind of threat: a "nuke in a box" -- a radiological, or "dirty," bomb sealed in a shipping container and smuggled into the country by terrorists. Customs officials realized that they could not physically inspect millions of maritime shipping containers without shutting down commerce.
Bonner created two programs that aim to determine the contents of cargo shipments before they leave their home ports for the United States. The Container Security Initiative, in operation at 40 major ports around the world, scrutinizes individual shipments. The Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism is a reporting system that looks at the chain of supply for foreign goods.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that the container program had led to improved information sharing between U.S. and foreign customs officials and greater international cooperation. But in some cases, Customs has not been able to obtain permission from host governments to operate in overseas ports. The program remains a work in progress, according to the GAO, which suggested some management improvements in its report.
Bonner said much progress had been made. "America is better protected, and I can say that without any equivocation," he said.
"We are better than we've ever been in terms of preventing terrorist operatives or weapons from entering the United States," Bonner said.
But the emphasis on enforcement after Sept. 11 has not stemmed illegal immigration across the border with Mexico.
A report released Tuesday by the Pew Hispanic Center found that the number of illegal immigrants has increased and now exceeds the influx of legal immigrants.
The Bush administration is seeking a guest worker program to channel the flow of workers legally.
Bonner said enforcement along the Arizona border was showing signs of success. In a television interview in the spring, he said the Border Patrol was "almost ... being overwhelmed."
Light, the government professor, said that although Customs was among the better-performing agencies in Homeland Security, Bonner's successor would face difficult issues, including employee dissatisfaction with a new pay system and a Congress reluctant to commit more funding.
Bonner, a Kansas native, has spent much of his professional life in Southern California.
Before joining the administration, he was a partner in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, supervising major white-collar-crime investigations.
He said he was "very seriously" considering returning to his former firm.
"When I came back to Washington, I couldn't conceive I'd be here four years, although I thought I might serve out the president's first term," Bonner said.
"I've reached a point where I've certainly done my duty. I think I accomplished the major things that needed to be done."