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Remembering Two 9/11s

September 11 or 9/11 is a watershed date in the history of terrorist acts against the U.S., and this date is significant for two series of events that occurred 31 years apart. Both series broadened the federal government’s role in preventing acts of terrorism from interdiction to prevention. They also set precedents for the ongoing work of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On September 11, 1970, a statement by President Richard M. Nixon outlined the nation’s response to a string of airline hijackings that had occurred on the previous on Sunday.

Within four hours on September 6th, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, took control of three New York bound planes from European cities:  A TWA flight from Frankfort, a Swissair DC 8 from Zurich and a Pan Am flight during a scheduled stop at Amsterdam.  Another attempt to hijack an El Al flight was prevented in flight. A passenger thwarted PFLP member Leila Khaled, who was armed with a grenade, from entering the flight deck and a crew member wrestled a gun away from the other hijacker, who was killed from a gunshot as part of the struggle.

The hijacked Pan Am jet was flown to a Cairo airport on the morning of September 7th and blown-up after the passengers disembarked.  The other two planes were held at Dawson’s Field, a former British airfield in Jordan, and on September 9th, were joined by a hijacked British Airways flight from Bombay. By September 11th, most passengers had been released, and the hijackers blew-up the planes.  Finally, on October 1, 1970, the remaining passengers were freed in exchange for the release of Khaled.

The nation’s response to these skyjackings was to mobilize a preventive force of federal officers from various agencies and implement security measures at airports.  As an interim measure, the Treasury Department assigned approximately 300 agents to air security, about one third of whom came from the former Customs Service.  They joined personnel from the FBI, U.S. Marshals, Defense Department and CIA. On October 28, the Treasury and Transportation secretaries signed an agreement creating an air security force in the Customs Service.  The agreement initially covered two years, then was extended until June 1974.

In-flight surveillance was short lived for the Customs Air Security Officers. On December 5, 1972, Transportation Assistant Secretary Benjamin Davis announced a change in emphasis for the program.  According to Davis, “. . . the best place to prevent a hijacking is on the ground before the plane goes into the air.”

Predeparture examination duty continued until June 25, 1974. The men and women who served as Customs Air Security officers during the phase out were reassigned or secured other government positions.  Within the Customs Service, 672 became Customs Patrol Officers, 155 became Special Agents, 230 were appointed as Customs Inspectors and 11 were selected as Import Specialists.

Commenting on the conclusion of the Customs air security program, Customs Commissioner Vernon D. Acree summed up the accomplishments of the program.  Across the life of the program, agents “. . . made 3,828 arrests, some in-flight; seized or detained 69,317 potentially lethal weapons; and made 248 hard narcotic seizures and 1,667 marijuana and dangerous drug seizures.” This only marked the closing of a chapter in the history of sky marshals.

In 2001, another series of terrorist attack on September 11 would lead to a totally new paradigm for border security. Like the series occurring in 1970, they involved skyjackings, but this time the skyjackings were initiated on U.S. soil. They were masterminded to employ the airplanes to attack targets in New York City and Washington, D.C. Three were successful; one was thwarted by the passengers on board. They destroyed the World Trade Center and inflicted substantial damage to the Pentagon.

The federal response was immediate and foreshadowed greater changes to government operations. Federal agencies quickly detailed staff and assets to the organizations where they were most needed. Across the country, federal workers volunteered for duty assignments away from home to ensure public safety. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, deployed Border Patrol agents under the auspices of Operation Safe Passage to work with Customs officers at ports of entry. Together, these INS and Customs personnel worked 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week to monitor flights and inspect 100 percent of incoming vehicles at land ports of entry.

Within days of 9/11, the White House created the Homeland Security Office with Thomas Ridge as its head. One month after the 9/11 attacks, congressional legislation was introduced with bipartisan support to establish a department of national homeland security. Following the recommendations of the Hart-Rudman Commission, the bill proposed moving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Customs, Border Patrol, Coast Guard and the agencies responsible for critical infrastructure protection under this new cabinet-level department.

President Bush also issued an executive order that created a Transition Planning Office, or TPO, to coordinate, guide and conduct transition for the proposed Department of Homeland Security. Bush appointed Ridge as the TPO’s director. On March 1, 2003, DHS became an official cabinet-level department with Ridge as its first secretary. On that day, CBP was formed.

The Homeland Security Act required CBP to maintain the same level of effort in the traditional customs, immigration and agricultural areas. This included seizing illegal drugs and other contraband, determining the admissibility of people and goods, apprehending people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally, protecting our agricultural interests from pests and diseases and collecting duties and fees. But in administering these duties, CBP employees began operating in a larger framework of border security.

This in turn required CBP to look at its international borders differently. As noted by CBP’s first commissioner, Robert C. Bonner, the U.S. could “no longer afford to think of the border merely as a physical line separating one nation from the other.” Referred to as “pushing the border outward,” this paradigm was designed to identify potential threats and address them before they reach America.

During the time period between 9/11 and the creation of CBP, the emphasis was on gathering information and assessing risks before cargo, travelers and their transport reached the border. Programs were piloted to achieve this goal. They continue today:

  • Smart Border Declaration between the U.S. and Canada allowed U.S. Customs inspectors to pre-screen goods destined for the U.S. at Canadian ports.
  • Container Security Initiative created agreements with major and mid-sized foreign ports that allowed the posting of inspectors to examine shipments before they embarked to the U.S.
  • Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism enlisted the trade community in developing security measures to protect the supply chain from the overseas loading dock to the arrival at U.S. ports.
  • Advance Passenger Information System, which had been a voluntary before 9/11, became a statutory requirement in 2001. This system collects passenger and crew information and transmits it while flights are en route to the U.S., thereby giving time to identify and mitigate potential risks.

While much of the efforts was unseen by the public, the most visible change was at ports of entry. Before the creation of CBP, travelers to the U.S. had to make two or three separate stops - for immigration inspection, customs inspection, and, if they are carrying food or plants, agriculture inspection - with three separate employees. To streamline this process, CBP initiated its "one-stop processing" on September 3, 2003, to maximize efficiency for travelers by reengineering separate staff positions into a single CBP officer. The position of CBP officer assumed the critical, priority mission of preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the U.S., while facilitating the flow of legitimate trade and travel.

In the following years, CBP’s responsibility broadened. The Air and Marine Interdiction Office, AMO, which was initially located with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, transitioned to CBP beginning October 8, 2004. On January 17, 2006, CBP consolidated AMO with existing CBP marine assets, program and personnel to create the Office of Air and Marine. This Office also became responsible for marine training, safety and standards, equipment, vessel procurement and maintenance.

CBP now had three operational offices identified by distinct uniforms. OAM officers in tan uniforms joined the green of the Office of Border Patrol and the blue of the Office of Field Operations. While uniforms distinguished personnel according to their distinctive duties, the CBP patch emphasized both their complementary roles and the collegial relationship among CBP operational offices.

As part of DHS, CBP also worked in tangent with other components within the department. This included working with FEMA to respond to natural disasters or threats and with a corps of sky marshals.  Today the sky marshals are known as federal air marshals and serve the nation in the Transportation Security Administration, a component created in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks, but with roots that reach back 31 years earlier.

Last modified: 
December 11, 2017