Graphic composite by Janice Jones
Rats. That was the genesis of a conversation U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Andrew L’Hommedieu had with a researcher from a foreign country on his way out of the U.S. During the conversation about the rodents and the research being done on cancer, L’Hommedieu found inconsistencies in the story of the scientist, who was already considered a person of interest because of his association with a foreign government in direct competition with the U.S. in matters of science and technology. The scientist denied having any research material from the U.S. hospital where he worked and with which he had signed a non-disclosure agreement. But L’Hommedieu’s training helped him determine the man was trying to leave the U.S with oncology research material to benefit his home country.
“We found that he was traveling with sensitive research material that he was not authorized to take out of the lab. On top of that, he appeared to plagiarize the research by copying the data onto a letterhead from a university in his home country,” said L’Hommedieu, who works in Boston, a hotbed of scientific research universities, hospitals and companies in the U.S. “Essentially, what he was doing was stealing research that was funded by the U.S. government.”
L’Hommedieu, who has a background himself in neuroscience, understands how academic research works and was able to stop the scientist thanks, in part, to CBP’s initiatives on biological threats. These efforts included the creation of the biological threat exclusion coordinator, a new frontline position within CBP.
“These biological materials don’t always come in your typical vial or cooler,” said Sean Smith, one of four biological threat exclusion coordinators in CBP, an agency with more than 60,000 men and women focused on protecting America’s borders while facilitating legitimate trade and travel. “We see [biological materials] embossed on paper and some really tricky ways passengers might be carrying this material. That’s really difficult to detect using traditional CBP inspection methods,” such as dogs or X-ray machines.
In October 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists and officers at Boston Logan International Airport found a vial containing undeclared biological samples, possibly mouse DNA, hidden in a bedroom slipper. The man carrying the vial was the husband of a foreign researcher working on cures for stroke at a hospital in Massachusetts. The man did not have the proper permits or documents to carry the biological samples. The biological material was repacked in a safe container and turned over to the FBI. CBP photo courtesy of Sean Smith
“All of CBP’s biological threat exclusion coordinators come from the agriculture specialist career field, possessing scientific backgrounds themselves. That helps tremendously in dealing with these types of threats, whether they are physical microscopic samples hidden in a notebook or reams of research materials,” Smith said. And despite having just four people in this unique career field nationwide, they’re able to make their presence felt even wider through training other CBP frontline workers. “We are available to support the entire nation, so if something does happen on the West Coast, they simply notify us.”
In addition to the specialized training from the coordinators, CBP frontline workers apply new targeting techniques and age-old interviewing skills to narrow down who they should talk to and what they should ask.
“We’re using the same layered approach to catching [more traditional] bad guys,” such as drug smugglers or human traffickers, said Kevin Harriger, the executive director of CBP’s Agriculture Programs & Trade Liaison office. “We are leveraging information from previous seizures, incidents, and interdictions at ports of entry, overlaying it on law enforcement data and analysis, and operationalizing what we learn to make us smarter in detecting and protecting against all threats.”
Compiling all the data and pinpointing which people and cargo shipments to target coming in and out of the country then leads to what CBP frontline workers really excel at: the art of the interview.
“We’re looking at their behavior, the nexus they might have to what they’re studying, where they’ve been overseas, what their history is, and all the things we might be looking at for an individual coming into the United States,” including their visa type and citizenship, Harriger explained, pointing out these are the same things CBP officers and agriculture specialists ask everyone coming to this country, whether it’s returning from vacation or heading back to work at their research university. “It’s the same approach, but what we have layered behind it might possibly be that link to encountering something of significance.”
The efforts of the handful of biological threat exclusion coordinators are also magnified by close work with other local, state and federal law enforcement offices, such as the FBI.
“One of the FBI’s missions is to protect the American people, and part of this also includes the intellectual property of those people,” said FBI Special Agent Nathan Livesey in Tennessee but who previously worked out of Boston. “The FBI considers U.S. Customs and Border Protection one of its strongest allies in this mission, due to [CBP] being at that front line and last line of when you come into the country and when you depart.”
Livesey said the FBI and CBP share intelligence on a regular basis. He credited CBP’s intel analysis as being a key asset in the FBI’s investigations.
“Their intelligence gathering and their targeting centers are great. They can see a wide picture of what and who’s coming in and out of ports of entry and better focus their efforts on specific ports of entry,” he said, pointing out that an FBI field office, such as the one in Boston that covers multiple states, has a lot of area to cover. But CBP can focus on a specific port of entry, such as Boston Logan International Airport. “That information chain coming back to the FBI allows us to check our databases and systems to ensure that everybody’s fully informed.”
Livesey compared CBP’s biological threat exclusion coordinators with the FBI’s own weapons of mass destruction coordinators who look at biological agents going in and out of the country. He said the integrated and coordinated efforts of the FBI and CBP, as well as other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, make the overall effort stronger. “When we all come together to work on one single threat, it’s just a force multiplier,” he said.
But being successful also means discouraging researchers from stealing the intellectual property secrets of the companies and academic institutions in the first place or – as in the more common event of accidently taking out research that they’re not allowed to – educating those researchers about what they can and cannot do.
“A lot of people are scared to reach out to law enforcement and regulatory agents because they feel like it will bring an inspection down on them. But there are ways to do it appropriately,” said Jamie Sue Willard, the biosafety officer for Michigan State University, whose doctorate is in food science. She added that most scientists are protective of their research and are not always open to other eyes looking at it. But CBP is good at explaining the rules and the process while protecting that researcher’s work. “I would recommend anybody who is doing import/export at their university or business to reach out and partner with [CBP].”
She added that the amount of regulations on exporting and importing items can be daunting, but CBP knows the rules and can walk researchers through the process to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Adam Pitt is the biological threat exclusion coordinator in Detroit and works with academics, such as Willard, to educate the scientific community on what they can and can’t do when it comes to taking microscopic materials in and out of the country.
“We work with local universities, in-person or virtually, and speak about the CBP process for bringing in biological research material correctly,” he said. “We want to foster the scientific community and be a good partner to them so they can do their important work.”
Pitt said it’s common for these training sessions with universities, research groups and the commercial scientific community also to include other government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Transportation and others so a complete picture is given for those importing and possibly exporting biological materials.
“If we can get people [importing and exporting] correctly, then we can focus our time more on those bad actors,” Pitt said. “And if we have the scientific research community doing things correctly, it’s also good for them and their research.”
Willard said, sometimes in the academic community, CBP gets a bad rap. But she said that’s not fair and not her experience.
“Rather than storm into the university, [CBP] sat down and did an educational piece for individuals trying to take material out of the country,” she said, pointing out that researchers at her university reach out to CBP two to three times a month to get answers to their questions. “[CBP] is kind of that glue between the person or university doing the shipping and the regulatory agencies. They put it all together for you. It’s a partnership I depend on and the university depends on.”
In addition, CBP makes information available on its website, www.CBP.gov/biologicals, to make sure that it’s no secret how to do things right when it comes to these types of research materials. “If you are a legitimate researcher doing legitimate work, there is a way to do pretty much everything with us,” Pitt said.
Smith and Pitt don’t underestimate the value of the knowledge they want to share.
“Fields involving the natural sciences, such as biotechnology, are rapidly advancing, and pose an ever-changing threat landscape. These changes in technology require CBP to develop specialized resources,” Smith said. “I think the biological threat exclusion coordinator is a critical part to counteract bio-threats in all pathways.”
Pitt remarked about how important maintaining intellectual property integrity is, especially at a time when researchers are trying to come up with vaccines and treatments to fight COVID-19. “We’re funding this research; we need to control it and keep it safe,” he said.
Harriger pointed out that the vast majority of those coming in and going out mean no ill will toward the U.S. But it’s those small few who are trying to steal genomic and microscopic intellectual property who could have grave consequences for America’s economic and national security.
“If a genomic sequence – the DNA – falls into the wrong hands, then an adversary could steal or leverage that product,” against U.S. interests, Harriger said. “That’s what we’re trying to keep from happening.”
L’Hommedieu said the skills he learned from the biological threat exclusion coordinators and his training as a CBP officer make him better at stopping those who might intend to steal America’s research secrets and ultimately cause harm to Americans.
“Even in the best-case scenario, the ideas and fruits of the American people’s labor are stolen,” he said. “Worst case scenario, it could be used to threaten U.S. interests, allied troops, or even civilians – so we must always be on guard.”