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Why Is Congress proposing to increase Customs and Border Protection corruption?

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During my 40-year career in law enforcement I served as a police officer, U.S. Secret Service Special Agent, and Assistant Commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), heading the Office of Internal Affairs.  In these positions, I was guided by one principle: law enforcement’s vital mission must be accomplished with integrity. 

From those decades of experience, the cases that most disturb me are people who applied to work at CBP – the country’s largest law enforcement agency – and admitted in the screening process to committing serious criminal offenses, including drug smuggling, rape, and infanticide, or confessed to seeking employment as infiltrators paid by transnational criminal organizations or cartels.

{mosads}We would not have caught hundreds of these applicants without a polygraph examination.  Indeed, CBP maintains a lengthy roster of near-misses that summarizes hundreds of these egregious admissions by applicants. Even so, nearly 200 CBP agents and officers have been arrested for corruption since October 2004. 

Based on my experience, I have an urgent obligation to speak out against a law Congress is close to enacting that would weaken CBP hiring standards imposed by the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010. The House Anti-Border Corruption Reauthorization Act (H.R.2213), scheduled for a floor vote on Wednesday, and the Senate Boots on the Border Act (S. 595), scheduled to be considered that morning by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would exempt certain law enforcement and military applicants for CBP positions from the polygraph examination only recently mandated by Congress.

CBP leadership is frustrated that two-thirds of applicants fail the polygraph, but skipping the test rather than seeking to improve and diversify CBP’s applicant pool is deeply misguided.  

This change is being contemplated without consideration of whether these applicants pass the polygraph at a higher rate: they don’t. Nor do these groups present a lesser risk of integrity violations: they have been involved in some of the most serious CBP corruption activity and excessive force incidents. Importantly, very few members of the military take polygraphs or have comprehensive background checks, and the quality of state or local law enforcement polygraphs varies widely. Past service in these capacities is by no means a proxy for proper, thorough vetting by CBP.

Mandatory polygraphs for all CBP law enforcement applicants, which are standard at the FBI, DEA, ATF, and Secret Service, were a congressional response to widespread corruption and other policing abuses at CBP that followed a rushed hiring surge last decade. Damaging compromises of CBP integrity ensued, including cartel infiltration achieved by hired applicants  who did harm to the United States.

I know from first-hand experience that the bills moving in Congress, backed by current CBP leadership desperate to hire more agents, would exacerbate corruption and abusive misconduct by adding unsuitable personnel who conceal criminal pasts – and/or have future intent to compromise CBP’s mission – so as to threaten our national security.  Indeed, a random sample of 1,000 polygraphs conducted after applicants were cleared by CBP’s background screening concluded that 65 percent of these applicants failed the polygraph, with many providing detailed descriptions of their involvement in criminal activity.

The Department of Homeland Security’s own CBP Integrity Advisory Panel, led by former NYPD Commissioner Bratton and former DEA Administrator Tandy, reported in June 2015 that “there is data indicating that arrests for corruption of CBP personnel far exceed, on a per capita basis, such arrests at other federal law enforcement agencies….CBP remains vulnerable to corruption that threatens its effectiveness and national security.” That’s why the Panel last year recommended expanding the CBP polygraph program to include post-employment testing and why carving out unwarranted polygraph exemptions (or changing the type of polygraph administered, as CBP also wants to do) would be grievous errors, in fact repeating the very hiring mistakes which led CBP into its recent corruption crisis.

I have been directly or indirectly involved with polygraph work for more than 30 years in federal law enforcement.  My professional opinion is that if Congress allows CBP to reverse the progress made following the Anti-Border Corruption Act there will be many false negatives allowing dangerous applicants to pass the vetting process.  On Wednesday, the House and Senate must not green-light lower standards for CBP recruits and worsen widespread integrity failures that already plague an agency with the biggest corruption problem in federal law enforcement.

James F. Tomsheck served as Assistant Commissioner of CBP for Internal Affairs from 2006 to 2014, and in the U.S. Secret Service for 23 years.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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