If al-Qaida is intent on infiltrating more terrorists into the U.S., it might want to send them to Disney World first.
Six U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers working at the Orlando Sanford International Airport have come forward alleging they were told to falsify customs records for arriving international passengers in order to handle large volumes of traffic and to create the impression they were carrying out the required number of enforcement screenings.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the six federal whistleblowers – all agricultural specialists – charged they were given stacks of forms, called IO25s, for people they had not personally interviewed and told to enter false information into the Treasury Enforcement Communication System database.
TECS is a computerized information system used by CBP officers and agricultural specialists to aid in the identification of individuals and business involved in, or suspected of involvement in, violations of federal law. CBP personnel use the TECS workstations to check incoming travelers, querying names at the initial Primary Passport Control station.
The collected data is passed on to Secondary Baggage Control area as IO25s. “Rovers” – CBP officers who roam the baggage area, randomly selecting passengers and airline-crew personnel for additional checks – may refer travelers to a secondary, more thorough questioning that includes a baggage inspection.
According to the complainants who worked in the secondary inspection area, they were given IO25s that had not been completed at Primary Passport Control for individuals they had not personally interviewed, and were told to “guess at the information … such as race, length of stay and number of bags. The standard information they were told to enter was ‘white, two weeks, two bags,'” the report from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel read.
All the agents said they were told the IO25s needed to be entered so that Sanford could reach the required percentage of enforcement screens. They indicated the number of such entries were “in the hundreds.”
Further, the workers charge they were told to code the IO25s as ENF, for “Enforcement Action,” instead of the less serious code of PPQ, for “Plant Protection and Quarantine.”
“This would falsely reflect that the passenger or crew member had been stopped, interviewed, and bags inspected in connection with a suspicion of possessing contraband or engaging in unlawful activity,” reported the special counsel. “Several of the whistleblowers questioned this and were told that things were done differently at Sanford, and that they should go ahead and enter the information as directed.”
Supervisors at Sanford denied the information entered on the forms was false, only that it was “incomplete” or “generic” data used to fill in queries missed at the earliest customs inspection.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, inspectors at the 324 U.S. ports of entry have been tasked with identifying and stopping foreign criminals, smugglers and terrorists among the 1.1 million visitors to the U.S. each year. CBP’s standard of clearing each foreign flight within one hour means arriving passengers are often screened within a minute or less.
The Sanford Port of Entry was originally designed to accommodate 800-900 passengers per hour, but during the summer of 2005 when the six whistleblowers were assigned to the facility, upwards of 3,000 passengers per hour, on their way to Central Florida’s many tourist attractions, needed to be processed.
To deal with the increased traffic, CBP transferred eight officers from the secondary inspection area to the Primary Passport Control booths. Despite rotating in other personnel from other Florida ports of entry, “the staffing configuration typically left only one CBP officer available to work secondary referrals from Secondary Baggage Control,” noted the special council.
“This desire to push through the passengers leaves these inspectors to do roughshod jobs,” Michael Cutler, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, told the Sentinel. “They keep manipulating the numbers to create an illusion that they’re doing their jobs.”
Cutler, who retired in 2002 after 30 years with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, is a former senior special agent and airport inspector.
While an internal-affairs investigation “partially substantiated” the whistleblowers’ charges, including claims they shared passwords to the secure database, supervisors received only “letters of counseling” as discipline. Practices such as using the more serious enforcement code to meet quota was said not to be covered by any agency rules.
The whistleblowers also complained that very few airline crew members were subjected to secondary searches since they tended to pass through the custom check as a group.