On the Front Lines of Homeland Security

Customs Keeps a Watchful Eye on Borders, and New Bureaucracy

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Elliot Bay

Container ships unload in Elliot Bay in downtown Seattle, Wash. An estimated 1.5 million containers enter this port each year -- and no one can be sure what's in every single container. Pam Fessler, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Pam Fessler, NPR News
Diana Dean

Customs Inspector Diana Dean helped to capture Ahmed Ressam at the U.S.-Canada border. Ressam's car was loaded with explosives, and he allegedly intended to bomb targets in Los Angeles. Pam Fessler, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Pam Fessler, NPR News
Port Angeles, Wash. border stop

The Port Angeles, Wash. border stop where Ressam was stopped. The Olympic Range looms on the near horizon. Pam Fessler, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Pam Fessler, NPR News

With the nation on high alert — and possibly headed for war — the Department of Homeland Security is trying to get organized as quickly as possible. Right now, the department is little more than an administrative shell. But on March 1, 2003, almost two dozen federal agencies will move in.

The goal is to make the country safer, but it won't be easy merging agencies as diverse as the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and as old as the Customs Service, which has been around since 1789. NPR's Pam Fessler went to the Pacific Northwest to find out how Customs workers feel about the move — and whether they think it will improve the nation's security.

Customs official Diana Dean is among a handful of inspectors at Port Angeles, Wash., on the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. "This remote town is about as far as one can get from bureaucratic reshuffling in Washington, D.C.," says Fessler. "But it's also here — on the front lines — where homeland security will likely succeed or fail."

Dean is responsible for perhaps the biggest arrest in the ongoing war on terrorism. She stopped the car of an Algerian-born man named Ahmed Ressam. After questioning him, officers found bags of white powder and bottles filled with amber liquid.

They thought they had found drugs, until they saw the timers. "We knew it was a bomb. We knew it was. There was no question in our mind," Dean tells Fessler.

Dean remains confident that her job will stay the same under the Department of Homeland Security. But exactly how the new department will work is still a mystery to many. Customs officials have been doing what they can to keep employees informed about the move to Homeland Security, but not everyone is satisfied with the answers they've received so far.

Creation of the new department left bitter feelings between the Bush administration and government employee unions. Congress agreed to give the administration broad flexibility over Homeland Security workers, and some employees are worried.

"What they have told us is, for one year nothing drastic will happen," says 30-year Customs veteran James Foley, now president of the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union. "This is like Cinderella looking at the clock... When it gets to midnight, how much is this going to change?"

Customs official Kathy Sarten has a great view outside her downtown Seattle office of Elliot Bay, off Puget Sound. But it's also a constant reminder of the danger facing U.S. ports. Sarten says 1.5 million containers enter this port each year — and no one can be sure what's in every single container.

"I admit I look out this window and think about a ship coming in — and try to be prepared for anything that could happen. It does make you very nervous... When you think about the reality, it's very scary," Sarten says.

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