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Federal security overhaul

The war on terrorism is changing the face of federal agencies on the mainland and in Puerto Rico.


November 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Rallying the troops: Led by a former FBI Special Agent-in-Charge, the new Transportation Security Administration is ensuring that Puerto Rico’s becomes just about the safest airport in the nation

As in the rest of the U.S., a large number of federal agencies in Puerto Rico have seen their respective missions and operations change dramatically since last year’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Not only did 9/11 change the mission and scope of action of many existing federal agencies, but it also spawned the creation of an entirely new agency—the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Agencies such as the TSA, the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Centers for Disease Control, among others, are all in the process of augmenting and redirecting their resources towards thwarting the kind of attacks that shook the nation and the world last Sept. 11.

The agencies are also working more closely with each other—as well as with Commonwealth government law enforcement agencies—in order to coordinate their efforts through such initiatives as the local Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force.

A changed airport

The biggest of the new federal post 9/11 efforts, of course, has been the federalization of airport security through the creation of the TSA.

In Puerto Rico, as of this month, the TSA has effectively replaced the old private contract security system.

At the helm of the transformation is former special agent in charge of FBI operations in Puerto Rico, Marlene Hunter, who last month was designated federal security director in charge of TSA’s local operations.

In addition to effecting a thorough overhaul of the security systems in place at the island’s airports, TSA’s presence also represents a significant injection into the local economy.

As Hunter tells it, before 9/11 the private security system at the island’s airports employed 325 people, most of whom earned salaries that on average hovered just above the federal minimum wage.

With the arrival of the TSA in Puerto Rico, there are now 539 new federal employees (including management) in the San Juan, Aguadilla and Mayaguez airports. Not only is that 214 more employees than under the previous system, but these new federal employees are much higher paid, and receive much more intensive training.

More than 90% of the new employees—483 of them—work as passenger screeners. As many as 300 more screeners will be added over the next few months. These screeners are being trained as an entirely new class of professionals, and they are charged with working hand in hand with other federal and local law enforcement officers at their checkpoint posts throughout the airports.

In terms of economic impact, the new TSA passenger screener work force represents a payroll of over $13 million a year. That is more than triple the approximately $4.0 million payroll under the previous airport security system.

The 22 TSA management employees represent an extra $1.1 million, conservatively estimated, on TSA’s local payroll. The agency also has an undisclosed number of air marshalls based in Puerto Rico. The air marshalls—who report directly to the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters—are in charge of providing in-flight security for commercial airlines.

More to come

As of Oct. 22, Hunter said there were 44,000 federal passenger screeners nationwide. "This is the biggest single U.S. government agency start-up since World War II," Hunter pointed out.

And it’s about to get even bigger.

The agency’s current manpower level is sufficient to cover its passenger screening responsibilities—which it was mandated to complete by the first anniversary of the founding of the agency on Nov. 19—but the TSA is still in the process of building up to meet its baggage screening responsibilities.

By the end of next month, the TSA is slated to finish the implementation of its new system for screening 100% of the luggage on commercial aircraft flying out of all the airports that it serves throughout the nation. Hunter said that in Puerto Rico, that means that the TSA is currently in the process of hiring as many as 300 more screeners in order to fully staff up for its mission.

When the TSA is fully staffed for all its screening functions on the island, Hunter said it is expected to have between 750 to 800 employees. It’s screener payroll alone will then surpass $20 million annually.

Law enforcement division?

Hunter told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that in the future, the TSA may also add its own law enforcement division.

Currently, state and local police officers are stationed to work alongside TSA passenger and baggage screeners. Their role is to intervene if something illegal is found or if passengers become abusive in the screening area.

In May of this year, the TSA entered into a $1.38 million contract with the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) that pays for the cost of assigning 48 PRPD officers to work with TSA officials in the island’s airports.

That contract expires in December 2003, and Hunter said that by then, the TSA will decide whether to continue partnering with local police forces or to establish its own law enforcement division.

Look for improvements

By the time the holiday travel season gets into full swing, Hunter says she hopes to have also finished revamping the San Juan International Airport’s passenger screening areas.

"The passenger screening areas are going to be completely re-designed, to make the process faster and easier," Hunter revealed.

Among the changes: re-designed checkpoint lanes to help facilitate passengers’ entrance and exit through the system, as well as the addition of large, bilingual electronic signage in checkpoint areas.

Hunter said passengers can also help make the process easier on themselves by such simple actions as placing jewelry, cellular phones and all metal items into their carry-on baggage until they clear security (see related story).

In the future, additional technology and security system enhancements promise to make the process easier, less physically intrusive—and more thorough. As the chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, the TSA’s principal contractor for improving airport security operations, said in an exclusive interview with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS (CB June 20), fingerprint and/or ocular iris readers—along with the rough equivalent of a national ID card—will probably be part of that future.

"At least the fundamentals of a common ID card will need to be the same across America," Lockheed Martin’s Wayne Coffman said, indicating that state driver’s licenses will probably be an initial tool for including what is termed relevant national information content.

In the more immediate future, TSA officials confirmed to CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that the agency will eventually seek to eliminate the additional round of screening passengers are sometimes subjected to at their departure gates. In order to get to that point, however, the agency must first complete a review of the effectiveness of its new checkpoint systems, as well as establish a new transportation worker ID card for airport workers.

"The bottom line is that this agency wants to provide world-class security and world-class customer service, so that people are very satisfied with their travel experience and want to travel and do all the things that have always made traveling wonderful," said Hunter.

On the front line

Among existing federal agencies, few have had their mission as redefined—and operations as altered—by 9/11 as the U.S. Customs Service.

"Our role has changed dramatically," says Marcelino Borges, the San Juan-based director of U.S. Customs field operations in the Caribbean area.

Borges oversees a team of more than 500 U.S. Customs inspectors based in San Juan, Ponce, Mayaguez, Fajardo, Vieques, Culebra and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While Customs is also adding personnel—Borges said 20 new inspectors will be added (an approximately $1 million payroll increase) during the current fiscal year—the biggest changes at the agency have to do with re-directing operations to meet the terrorist threat.

And for those who think Puerto Rico isn’t in harm’s way? "Think again," Borges says. "The threat is for all U.S. economic interests, and after 9/11 nothing is impossible—anything and everything can happen."

Borges points to last month’s Indonesian Al Qaeda attack on tourists visiting the island of Bali as an example of how far-flung and dispersed the terrorists’ targets can be.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Customs has faced the daunting challenge of ensuring that no terrorist attacks are delivered through the nation’s cargo shipping system. Meeting that challenge has led the agency to employ a number of new technologies, as well as seek to effectively extend the nation’s borders, among other initiatives. (See related supplement in this edition.)

Most goods that enter the mainland U.S.—and more than 90% that enter Puerto Rico—arrive by oceangoing cargo containers. A terrorist attack using a sea container—and it has been suggested that such an attack could employ biological or even nuclear weapons—is one of the most devastating scenarios that federal officials can imagine.

Earlier this year, Customs swung into gear with its new container security initiative. The initiative sets new criteria to identify high-risk containers, provides for screening such containers before they arrive at U.S. ports and employs new technology for the screening process.

In the Caribbean region, Customs has increased its use of non-intrusive inspection technology, which includes mobile truck x-ray systems, portable radiation detectors and a sea container x-ray system. It is also enlisting the cooperation of the island’s importers, carriers, brokers, warehouses and manufacturers through another initiative called Customer-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT).

Businesses that participate in C-TPAT commit to conducting a comprehensive security self-assessment, followed by the implementation of a program to enhance their supply chain’s security system. More information about the program can be examined on the Customs web site ( Participating businesses benefit from expedited processing at ports of entry. Borges said that so far, about 20 local businesses are in the process of enrolling in the program.

Puerto Rico-based customs agents are also participating in the agency’s efforts to effectively extend the nation’s borders. Borges said his agents are expected to be increasingly involved in rotation assignments to major international seaports, as part of efforts to pre-screen U.S.-bound cargo.

Coast Guard also shifting gears

The U.S. Coast Guard has also shifted its resources significantly in Puerto Rico as a result of 9/11.

According to Captain Douglas Rudolph, commander of the Coast Guard’s more than 550-member Greater Antilles Section, the agency has reinforced its role in port security.

For example, the Coast Guard is working more closely with the cruise ship industry, providing patrol boat escorts in and out of port, as well as enforcing security zones around the ships. All incoming commercial vessels are also required to notify their arrival to port further in advance.

Like the TSA and Customs, the Coast Guard is also on a list of 22 federal agencies that President Bush wants to group together within the proposed new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Congress is expected to approve the creation of the new umbrella department early next year.

The Coast Guard is also expected to add more personnel to its San Juan and Aguadilla operations centers, where major construction projects are either underway or about to get underway. At its La Puntilla base in San Juan, for example, the Coast Guard currently has a $12.5 million 100-room barracks under construction, expected to be occupied next year.

Construction of a new $5 million operations center at La Puntilla and a $3.4 million vessel support building is also underway, along with a $1.2 million exchange complex.

FEMA also on board

The mission and scope of activities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is also changing as a result of the war on terrorism.

Locally, agency director Jose Bravo told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that he expects his office will grow in size when it becomes a part of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Among the anti-terrorism related initiatives at FEMA is the creation of a new division at the agency, called the Office of National Preparedness. FEMA is providing a considerable amount of the funding for the terrorism response exercises that are being conducted around the nation.

In Puerto Rico, FEMA provides $1.7 million in funding annually to the State Emergency Management Agency, and recently provided a $640,000 grant to the local Fire Department as part of a nationwide initiative to strengthen the capabilities of fire and rescue personnel.

FEMA and the State Emergency Management Agency are also involved in the development of the Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), the final implementation of which is still pending approval of the new Homeland Security Department.

In a related development, earlier this year FEMA also permanently activated its National TeleRegistration Center in Trujillo Alto. In times of disaster, Bravo said the center could temporarily employ as many as 400 people for nationwide disaster assistance processing functions.

FBI, INS also staff up forces

Because of security concerns, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service do not reveal the exact numbers of agents each agency deploys in their respective field offices throughout the nation, including Puerto Rico.

However, local FBI spokesman Eric Rivera said the FBI is in the midst of an aggressive recruiting campaign for more special agents, research specialists and technical information specialists. For the current fiscal year, he said the agency has established a goal of hiring nearly 900 new agents nationwide.

For the previous fiscal year which ended Sept. 30, Rivera noted that the FBI’s goal was to hire nearly a thousand new agents and an additional 1,500 new support personnel. Prior to 9/11, the agency had approximately 11,700 special agents. Moreover, in the wake of 9/11, 400 of the agency’s agents were transferred from drug interdiction to counter-terrorism and counter intelligence duties.

Both the growth in the number of agents and shift in resources are expected to impact the agency’s local operations, Rivera acknowledged.

The INS and its Border Patrol forces have also been beefing up big time. During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the INS added 10,000 new inspectors and Border Patrol agents, growing from a total of 34,000 to 44,000 employees throughout the nation.

Without revealing the numbers of its assigned locally personnel, INS spokesman Ivan Ortiz acknowledged that the nationwide expansion is also impacting the agency’s Puerto Rico operations.

Other post 9/11 changes at the INS are also having a significant impact locally, Ortiz said. Because most of the 9/11 hijackers were in the U.S. on student visas, the INS has considerably tightened student visa requirements.

Prior to 9/11, Ortiz said many international students initially came to Puerto Rico on a tourist visa and could begin their studies before actually possessing a student visa. New regulations now require foreign students to have a student visa before they can enroll in island educational institutions. Ortiz said that as a result of the changes, local universities also have greater reporting responsibilities to the agency.

Two months ago, the INS also established a new national entry and exit registration system for foreign nationals from designated countries (currently Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Syria). Ortiz said the list of countries may be expanded in the future. Visitors from designated countries are required to register with the INS during their stay, and are required to leave the country from designated exit points.

In the near future, Ortiz said the INS may also change its tourist visa regulations. Instead of routinely allowing six-month stays, the INS has proposed changing the visa’s duration to the maximum amount of time needed to accomplish the purpose of the trip, and reduce the maximum amount of time spent in the U.S. to no more than six months.

Post Office, Centers for Disease Control

U.S. Postal Service Caribbean district manager Roberto Perez de Leon said his agency has also, of course, made major, permanent changes to mail handling operations since 9/11.

Because of last year’s anthrax attacks—as well as the potential for other types of attacks through the postal system—Perez de Leon said the Postal Service has spent tens of millions of dollars on new mail inspection and processing equipment. The more than 3,700 Postal Service employees on the island have also received corresponding anti-terrorism training.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—has also ratcheted up its preventive measures against bioterrorist attacks.

In June 2002, the agency announced a $918 million initiative to prepare and strengthen public health systems throughout the nation. The Puerto Rico Department of Health is participating in the program, coordinated by the local CDC office.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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