R. Gil Kerlikowske became commissioner of Customs and Border Protection following his Senate confirmation in March 2014. Since then he has confronted difficult issues facing CBP, such as the influx of families and unaccompanied children on the Southern border.
The commissioner is no stranger to controversy. During his four decades of law enforcement and drug policy experience, he led his government agencies through political and public safety disputes. He served nine years as the Seattle chief of police and earlier headed police departments in Buffalo, New York, and several towns in Florida, where he worked the majority of his law enforcement career.
At the U.S. Department of Justice he served as deputy director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. He came to CBP after five years in his position as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Commissioner Kerlikowske spoke with Frontline in August about what he brings to CBP from his career experience, what he learned in his first six months as commissioner and his vision for the agency.
Q: The goals of increased transparency and integrity are closely related. You’ve commented that working towards greater integrity and transparency in a federal agency is more difficult than in municipal police organizations.
Why? In what ways is this more difficult in a federal agency than it was in municipal agencies?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: I think there's an important thing that we all have to do in CBP if we're going to have the support and the trust of the people that we serve. It's not that much different from a local police department.
You have to have people who will call you with information, who are going to tell you things that are going on.
You have to have people who might be a witness to something and are going to trust you to safeguard them. To do that, a municipal agency has a direct relationship with people. In a very large federal agency like CBP, it is more difficult.
We are more bureaucratic; we have a layer of oversight and review from Congress and others that makes it a little more difficult to move quickly.
That's why the key for CBP in the future will be at the local level where we have our port directors and our DFOs [directors of Field Operations] and our Border Patrol sector chiefs, all of them being able to have that kind of relationship with the local community.
Q: How did your roles in local law enforcement leadership inform how you deal now with CBP's integrity and transparency?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: You know, integrity and transparency for us is the coin of the realm. It was the same way when I was a police chief in Buffalo or a police chief in Seattle.
So we have to understand and recognize how absolutely critical that is.
People turn to us for help and assistance, whether they're young people that are coming across the border, as we're dealing with right now, or whether they're people that are just entering the United States for the first time ever at one of our ports.
Our folks are the first people they encounter.
They need to feel that they're going to be taken care of, that they can tell that Border Patrol agent that something has happened to them. They need to be able to feel that level of confidence and that's something that I learned very well as a police officer for many decades.
Q: Shortly after coming on as commissioner, you faced some high-profile, controversial challenges: use of force, integrity, migrant children and families.
Can you describe another time in your career in which an early, tough challenge shaped your management of an organization and helped you grow as a leader?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: I think that the challenge that was really very difficult for me was [the demonstration] after the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. It was in November of 1999 and it made world headlines. And it put the police department in a very bad position.
I came in as the police chief nine months later and there was going to be a second demonstration, a kind of reenactment of the WTO. People in the city were quite worried.
But we approached it quite differently. We approached it in a way that we were much more in touch, in contact with the people that were protesting. I was in the field with all of the officers for 13 or 14 hours and actually things went off very well.
But our police union had some concerns because they thought that perhaps the officers not being in helmets and heavy vests and so on were left somewhat unprotected, even though I was doing the same thing with these officers.
So just a few months later we celebrated Mardi Gras in Seattle. And that evening we had a very severe disturbance, we had a number of people injured and we actually had a young man who died [during a street fight].
But rather than have the officers in the crowd, being a part of that incident, I had listened to the concerns that had been voiced about the officers not being protected. And so I had left them several blocks away with certainly lots of protective gear, but they weren't in the mix.
And I look back at that situation today and I wish that I had made a different decision. So sometimes I think that understanding and learning from your mistakes is critical. But also admitting your mistakes. And I wish I had done things differently.
Q: If you’d had your officers in hardened gear in among the crowd, might it have changed how it went down and might that have produced even more casualties?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: I think that it's very hard to have any type of discussion or dialogue when the officers are wearing helmets, gas masks, and are covered from head to foot with very thick protective gear.
Q: You have said it's important for our officers and agents to maintain their own safety.
Commissioner Kerlikowske: The key point is that you want these officers to not get injured. I've had the death of several police officers when I've been in command. It's an unbelievably tragic, tragic situation.
So their safety and security, just like it is for CBP, is absolutely preeminent. But there are ways to go about this when you're able to communicate more directly with the people that you're working with or trying to protect, oftentimes from themselves.
Q: You’ve witnessed CBP personnel in action across the agency and around the world. You’ve spoken frequently of your admiration and respect for CBP’s men and women.
In addition to offering your personal thanks, in what other ways do you plan to lead CBP managers and supervisors to improve employee engagement, job satisfaction and morale?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: Well, I think it's very important that one, you set the example as the commissioner.
Even when I've had a disagreement or I've been unhappy with the result or unhappy with a decision that somebody's made, I don't think you'll find a person in the last six months that won't say they've been treated with the utmost respect and the utmost courtesy. And frankly, every manager, every supervisor in this organization has to do exactly the same thing.
Sometimes we have some managers and some supervisors that don't always treat people with the greatest courtesy or the greatest amount of respect. And that's a mistake. And that has to change, because it makes a huge difference in somebody's work life.
When I was a police chief in a different city, in Florida, there was an incident just after I had left the department, in which a young officer was directing traffic and he was killed in the line of duty.
And about a day or two days later, I received a call from the people that I had worked with in that department. And they said, “We need some help, we're planning the officer's funeral.”
The officer's family had said that if the current chief of police attended the funeral, that they, as his family, would not attend. It was pretty shocking.
And so I intervened and looked into the situation. What had happened several weeks earlier is that the current chief had been at a function. He saw several officers there. It was a fairly relaxed function, but they were in uniform.
And he mentioned to some of them that they looked very unprofessional and even singled one person out with particularly derogatory information. When that officer went home that night and said, “I ran into the chief and the chief said I didn't look or act professional,” that resonated with his family. It just so happened that that was the officer that a week later was killed.
That was a huge message that the chief sent to that officer's family and it really resonated when they were planning his funeral.
Luckily, fortunately it all worked out. The chief was able to attend, but rather than sit with the relatives of the person who had been killed, as I've always done, the chief sat several rows back. That made a huge impression on me, on the way you treat people.
Q: One of CBP’s stated primary missions is to “protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror.” Our agency has succeeded in that mission.
How do you plan to lead the agency in anticipating and addressing the coming threats—the next generation of threats, so to speak?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: You know, we have a whole host of successes. There isn't a day that goes by that our agents and our officers at ports of entry are not apprehending somebody – somebody smuggling, somebody who is trying to take money into Mexico to feed those cartels. We do an absolutely great job.
But there are hosts of new threats that we have to be prepared for. And waiting for something to happen isn't something that any of us can afford. We have to actually be in front of it.
The cyber-threat issue is particularly critical to us. Right now, of course, we're dealing with Ebola issues, and before that it was MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], and just about 12 years ago it was SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome].
These types of threats, and the threats to our agriculture, are absolutely critical to not only our safety and security, but frankly to our economy. The work that our agriculture specialists do, their knowledge and their skills, are hugely important to all of us.
Q: What additional initiatives do you plan for the agency in the next year?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: One area of responsibility that we have, and it's been made very clear by the global community, is that CBP is absolutely a world leader in trade facilitation and travel facilitation.
And we do so in a way that is just unbelievably well-balanced. We protect the public and make sure that the people who shouldn't get into this country don't get into this country. But more importantly, we have technology, training, and systems in place that other countries very much would like to have.
With our attachés in 23 countries, our footprint in 40 countries, those countries have asked repeatedly, “What is it that you can tell us about your best practices? What of your technology can you share?” And so we share what we can.
The better we all do globally, the less risk all countries will have. The better we do globally, the better our economy and their economies will do. And that all leads to improvements in our economic security.
Too often almost all of the discussion is around terrorist threats. Economic security is also vital; it's vital to all of us.
Q: What additional initiatives do you plan for the agency in the next year in information and intelligence networking?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: I think for us in CBP, information sharing is absolutely critical. Again, to that safety and security issue. And I think we've learned a lot from the Department of Defense.
When I served as President Obama's drug policy advisor, I met with General McChrystal before he went to Afghanistan. Later on I had the opportunity to meet with General Mike Flynn, who headed up the Defense Intelligence Agency, and others.
They've looked at these programs on how to fight and counter violent extremism, terrorism and threats to the country. And it's through technology, it's through information sharing, but it's also through relationships. That's something that I learned from both of them.
Q: What do you envision for CBP in 2020; in the far future, beyond your tenure, in terms of agency structure, infrastructure, programs, and priorities?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: I think 2020 is going to be an age of technology for us. We can only do so much in a labor-intensive environment.
And we have, when you think about a CBP officer and someone entering the country, we still stamp their passport the way we did 50 years ago.
I think all of that is changing rapidly, whether it's through RFID [radio-frequency identification], whether it's through other types of technology. I think it will only continue to change, but we can't lose sight – even in 2020 when we envision the technology that may be available – we can't lose sight that our strength, just as it is today, is our people.
Q: What do you plan during your tenure to set CBP on a course towards a vision of expanded technology?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: We have to look at our organizational structure.
We haven't had a confirmed commissioner in five years. That's detrimental to an organization. We have a number of personnel in acting positions and we have to make some of those permanent and move to getting the right people in the right chairs within CBP. That's going to be very important.
The other part is to give our managers, our leaders, the flexibility and the resources to make the decisions. They know the details of the organization. They have an understanding and a history that I will never acquire, even if I did stay until 2020. So I have to give them the support, the resources and the direction to go. But I don't have to point the direction with great specificity; they're the ones that are going to take us there.
What I do bring to CBP is the fact that, over these years, I've been able to develop key relationships in the administration with White House personnel; key relationships on Capitol Hill with the people who will authorize us and fund us. Not all of them are always aware of not only the capabilities, but the professionalism that exists here at CBP.
So I have great stories to tell them and fortunately I can build on the relationships I've had with them.
Q: You've spoken in testimony and in previous interviews about ways to fulfill CBP's broad and diverse mission. Part of CBP's task is to show Congress and other stakeholders how the different CBP teams work together.
How did you work in other organizations that had differing aspects that shared importance, and how did you make them work together to succeed?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: Why, I think that the best example of that is the president's National Drug Control Strategy.
Since Ronald Reagan there has been a drug “czar.” (That’s a great term.) And the drug czar didn't have command and control, didn't order, didn't direct.
The $26 billion federal drug control budget is in the Department of Health and Human Services; the Department of Defense; the Department of Justice; the National Institutes of Health; the National Institute on Drug Abuse – all of these different components. They're all key players, key stakeholders, in the president's strategy.
The lesson I learned is that when I became the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and started working on our first annual drug control strategy for the president, I asked all of those organizations to come for a meeting, including the Department of Education.
In my earlier days of working for [former Attorney General] Janet Reno, I had a good friend that handled a lot of drug policy for the Department of Education. It's a huge part of a national drug strategy, making sure that kids get the right information about drugs.
And so when he came over for the meeting, he said, “This is great; I'm really excited to be here. I haven't been invited in six years.”
I think bringing people in and having them help to craft what we're going to do and how we're going to go about doing it, is far more important than issuing a directive that ends up going to everybody saying, “Now you will follow the rules and you will do this.”
If they're a part of crafting that policy, I think they're much more inclined to be supportive and they're much more inclined to put their own time and energy and their own reputation into making sure that we're successful. That's what we need to keep doing here at CBP.
Q: What have you discovered in your first six months at CBP?
Commissioner Kerlikowske: I think the more important part for me out of all of this discussion is that in the first six months, although I knew a lot about CBP and I had a lot of admiration for the work that people do here – because of the time not only with the president, but also my work in Seattle and in Buffalo – the six months that I've actually been embedded in the organization has only worked to increase my respect and my appreciation and my admiration across this very large organization for what they do and how they go about it. Oftentimes they work under difficult circumstances, rugged terrain, tough environments, dealing with people that aren't always the happiest people after a 17-hour flight.
They do an amazing job. That's what I've learned in the last six months.
A Career of Service