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Transcript: Todd Owen talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"


In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Todd Owen, Executive Assistant Commissioner for Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Owen and Morell discuss the agency's main operational components and the state of U.S. border security. Owen explains the focus and range of the agency's efforts on counterterrorism and narcotics interdiction, addresses migration and asylum trends exacerbating security and humanitarian concerns on the U.S. southern border, and evaluates the U.S.-Mexico operational relationship. Listen and subscribe to the episode here

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - TODD OWEN

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

Todd, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is good to have you.

TODD OWEN:

Well, thank you for having me.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Todd, you'll remember that I heard you speak about the southern border at a private event here in D.C. and you remember that I came up to you afterwards and told you I was impressed with the factual nature of your presentation there, and that I'd love to have you on the show. And you said yes.

TODD OWEN:

Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And that's why you're here, and that's what I want to do. And I talked the you that day because I really believe that facts matter. And I think facts about immigration and the southern border have gotten lost in the politics of the moment. And I think getting facts out is extraordinarily important, and that's what I really would love to do with you today. But before we do that, I do want to ask you a few questions about your career.

TODD OWEN:

Sure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Because we know from feedback that a good chunk of our listeners are either college students who are interested in security issues or young professionals who are interested, so they always want to know about the careers of the guests.

TODD OWEN:

Okay.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So let me start by asking you how did you en

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d up with the government? What drew you to work for the government?

TODD OWEN:

Actually, I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and was very familiar with the border, with the crossings into Canada. So I had some familiarity with U.S. Customs and Immigration and Naturalization Service. When I went to college I went to college in Cleveland, John Carroll University in northeast Ohio--

MICHAEL MORELL:

I'm a northeast Ohio boy--

TODD OWEN:

--at Cuyahoga Falls. Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes. Yes. (LAUGH)

TODD OWEN:

So after I graduated, U.S. Customs came recruiting on the campus, and it was a career that I was somewhat familiar with, and it was very interesting to me because of  

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the depth of what they did and the variety of types of work that they did.

And two weeks later I was on board with U.S. Customs in Cleveland and worked in Cleveland for two years, and then transferred down to Miami and spent eight years in south Florida, primarily on the trade enforcement side of the house within the U.S. Customs.

And then I had moved over to New Orleans and became the port director in New Orleans for a four year period. Then did my first tour in Washington, D.C. For six years I was in charge of all of the cargo security programs. And then after that I went back out into the field as the director for our Los Angeles operations. And then in February 2015 was selected for the executive assistant commissioner position, the position I hold now.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So you were with Customs when Customs came together with the Border Patrol?

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What was that like? That was right after 9/11, right?

TODD OWEN:

Well, that was very interesting. Right. Because what we basically had before that time is we had four different agencies with some sort of responsibility at the border. So we had U.S. Customs, which of course the narcotics interdiction, the trade enforcement.

We had the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the true immigration responsibilities. The Department of Agriculture agriculture inspectors, because that's a very important part of what we do at the border too. And then the fourth component of that was the Border Patrol.

So when CBP, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was created in 2003, they merged

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all four of those components, so now we had one responsible entity for the activities at the ports of entry at the lawful crossings, that being the Office of Field Operations that I lead. And we had one responsible entity for between the ports of entry, that being the Border Patrol. They deal with the illegal crossings between the lawful ports of entry.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And was that bringing together a difficult process?

TODD OWEN:

It was a difficult process. I mean there was a lot of growing pains. It took--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sure.

TODD OWEN:

--us a lot of years. We had--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sure.

TODD OWEN:

--proud histories within each of the four agencies that were coming together to be one. A lot of just simple things such as merging policies and budgets and personnel hiring and things like that. But I think throughout the start everybody saw the benefit of that and everybody was still trying to do the right thing, particularly after 9/11, really to secure the border and make sure that bad people and bad things were not coming across. And this was a way to allow us to do that more effectively.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So you rose from an entry level officer--

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--to a very senior position.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And I did the same. And I would be frequently asked by young officers, you know, "How'd you get ahead? Because I'm thinking about getting ahead. How'd you get ahead?" I'm sure you get that question--

TODD OWEN:

Yes. Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--as well. How do you answer it?

TODD OWEN:

Well, I always tell them you have to seek out the opportunities that the agency presents. And within U.S. Customs and Border Protection, you know, we work all across the United States, 328 ports. We also have assignments in 62 countries around the world.

We have intelligence components. We have the true enforcement officers on the front line. Canine teams. We have air and marine pilots. We have so many opportunities within the agency that I always tell them, "Seek out those opportunities that you're most interested in and advance towards those."

You know, I've traveled a lot. Each new position I've taken has brought you a different awareness and really honed your law enforcement skills by each new assignment. So I encourage our new officers to seek out those opportunities. Don't spend your whole career in one port of entry or one duty station. Move around. Take advantage. Each one makes you a little bit different, little bit stronger.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay, Todd, so let's shift gears to talk about CBP in general, and then to the southern border in particular. So what are the main missions of CBP?

TODD OWEN:

Within CBP, I mean we are the largest component within DHS. So we have 62,000 employees within CBP. We have four operational components. We have the Office of Field Operations that I lead. That's 30,000 employees, 24,000 of which are the sworn law enforcement officers. We have responsibility at the lawful ports of entry. Those 328 airports, sea ports, northern border, southern border. That is our area of responsibility. We deal with the trade, the cargo, the travelers who are coming in through those lawful ports of entry.

The second component, the Office of the Border Patrol, about 25,000 agents, they deal with the illegal crossings between the ports of entry. They're the agents in the green uniforms that you'll see out there. Our third operational component is our Office of Air and Marine, and as the name indicates, they are our pilots, our boat operators, our interdiction officers there. And then our fourth component is the Office of Trade. That sets the trade policy, which we then execute within the Office of Field Operations at the ports of entry. So 62,000 employees total within CBP.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And rough budget?

TODD OWEN:

Rough budget. The budget within Field Operations is $6.5 billion. The overall budget within CBP, over $13 billion.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I know, because I used to be in the executive, you know, branch of our government, this is a tough question. But do you have the resources that you need?

TODD OWEN:

Well, we always need more resources, but within CBP I think we've been very effective in maximizing what we have, adopting new technologies to meet the mission that we have. We're rolling out technology such as facial recognition at the airports. That is really helping us to identify those travelers that are of concern, yet expedite those that are not.

We have a great deal of cargo inspection

technology that is quite advanced that allows us to increase our level of inspections. So I think within CBP we do a great deal to maximize the use of the newest technology that's out there that allows us to meet the mission.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Todd, what is your job? So executive assistant commissioner for Field Operations. What does that mean?

TODD OWEN:

Well, I oversee and have responsibility for all of the ports of entry. For the lawful crossings that we have within the country. So again, 30,000 people. We process individuals that are trying to enter in the country. We process the cargo that's coming in. We have responsibility for what is leaving the country as well.

So we are an all threats agency at the border. Our priority missions, of course, are counterterrorism first and foremost, followed by narcotics interdiction. Ensuring the economic security of our country that deals with our trade enforcement, our agriculture protections, those types of programs. And then fourth, of course, is the facilitating the lawful trade and traveler in and out of the country.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So what's a typical day look like for you?

TODD OWEN:

Typical day is we'll focus on policy matters in- terms of the actions that we're taking at the ports of entry. We'll oversee a great deal of the enforcement actions. We seize an incredible amount of narcotics every day. We deny entry to people that are of concern for one reason or not. We'll be engaged in those types of activities. And then things such as the hurricane that we're dealing with now. CBP has a tremendous response into the hurricane zone with our air and marine assets to assist in the recovery of what's going on down there.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes. So in terms of counterterrorism, what's your primary concern? Is it the northern border? Is it the southern border? Is it airports? What's your main concern?

TODD OWEN:

Well, our primary concern is on the land border. In the air environment we have advanced information on everyone before they even set foot on an airplane to come here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

TODD OWEN:

So we can do a great deal of research and vetting on those individuals before they ever arrive. If there's individuals of concern we can even deny boarding so they never make it to a plane to come into the United States. The land border, we don't have that ability. The individuals present themselves from Canada or from Mexico right up to the officers at the primary booth. That is the first time we have information on them. We will run our checks, we will do our vetting, we will do our interview. It's a much different environment than what we see in the airport environment.

I am more concerned with our northern border threats than our southern border threats in terms of the counterterrorism mission. The immigration system and the laws of Canada are very welcoming to individuals from certain parts of the world that we are concerned with. We always want to make sure that they have been properly vetted by our Canadian partners before they avail themselves to different privileges that being within the Canadian immigration system afford them. But from a counterterrorism threat, I have a greater concern for the northern border than I do from the southern border.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Even in terms of Canadian citizens becoming radicalized and then coming to the United States.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I would think that's an issue.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I would imagine that your officers conduct operations every day that impact national security.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So the interdiction of the narcotics and the terrorism piece. Can you give us an example, a specific example of one of those?

TODD OWEN:

Sure. I think an area that most people are not aware of is the positions that we take within the international mail branches and the express courier hubs. Your FedEx or UPS, your DHL, those types of carriers. With the growth of e-commerce, tremendous volume comes through that system. So we're at 2.2 million parcels a day come into the country through the mail and through the express courier. Every one of those parcels could be a threat pathway for narcotics. The Fentanyl that we've heard so much about. For false documents. for, you know, monetary instruments. False currency. Things of that nature.

So every one of those 2.2 million packages presents a threat for us. We use technology, we use canine, we use the officer intuition to try to screen out those that are over concern and interdict. But that is activity that takes place behind the scenes that most of the folks are not aware of that is a very heavy focus of us.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And I would imagine you find things every day.

TODD OWEN:

We find things every day. Every day. It's a very target-rich environment. Not only for those types of higher level threats, but things such as the intellectual property rights, things of that nature. You know, counterfeit prescription medicine. We find a great deal of that. We seize that. Turn that over to the FDA. So we do focus and awful lot on the mail and the express courier environments, as well as what we do on the land borders.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Todd, the southern border. Perhaps the best way to do this is talk about the flow of migrants.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And maybe you could talk about the trend in that regard.

TODD OWEN:

Sure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How your officers have to handle that. Walk us through that whole thing.

TODD OWEN:

Sure. And, you know, just to get us started, again, I'll be speaking from the ports of entry. So the lawful crossing. But the trends that we see at those lawful crossings mirror what we see between the lawful crossings, in that--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Which the Border Patrol handles.

TODD OWEN:

Which was Border Patrol handles. Yes, sir. So if we go back to 2014, which is really when the most recent wave of migrants started coming in, in 2014 what we really saw a lot of was the unaccompanied alien children. And in 2014 the majority of those were entering illegally between the ports of entry. The Border Patrol had responsibility to apprehend them. Turn them over to Health and Human Services for care. It really was not an issue at the ports of entry.

2015, the Flores settlement was modified. We've heard about the Flores settlement, which sets certain conditions for care of the migrants that are in our custody. It also sets certain limitations as to how long individuals can be retained in custody.

Prior to 2015, the Flores settlement applied only to unaccompanied alien children. 2015, that settlement was modified to include accompanied alien children. So that's important, because what we started to see then in 2016 was a large increase of family units, adults traveling with children, because they understood that the changes to the Flores agreement also now meant that we could not detail family units for longer than a reasonable amount of time, which the courts have indicated is 20 days. So if it was an unaccompanied alien child, they're released within 20 days. And now, as a result of the 2015 modification, family units are also released within 20 days.

So as a result of that, starting in 2016, we began to see a huge increase in the family units that were coming across, both between the ports illegally and at the ports within our ports of entry as well. The demographics really shifted. Prior to that, it was primarily adults, primarily of Mexican origin, that we could quickly process and repatriate right back to Mexico.

With that change in 2016 we started to see the family units, primarily from the northern triangle, which cannot be quickly repatriated. They have to be held before they can be presented to an immigration judge for a final determination as to their credible fear claims. That started to really tax the system in terms of the volumes that we were seeing, the custody, the care issues. So 2016 we really became quite overwhelmed with the family units.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So they show up at a port of entry and they raise their hand and they say, "I want asylum in the United States of America."

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And what happens at that moment?

TODD OWEN:

At that point our CBP officers at the border, we not adjudicate those claims. All we do is basically begin the process. So we will fingerprint them. We will take a sworn statement from them. We will take any of the documents, identity documents, that they have. We will do our checks.

And then basically we set them up for processing, and they will then appear before an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But it takes some time from when they arrive at the port of entry to when they actually have that initial hearing.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How much time is that?

TODD OWEN:

It can be lengthy. You know, it's definitely beyond the 20 days in which we're allowed to hold folks. So we initially will turn them over to HSI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The enforcement removal operations. They are the ones that are responsible for the long-term detention. So they will hold the family units while they're waiting to be seen by, first, an asylum officer, and then finally an immigration judge has the final say as to the merits of their claim. That hearing may be several years down the road.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

TODD OWEN:

So they're no longer held in custody. They're released into the community, and in several years they will report before a final immigration judge for that final determination.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And so they know all of this.

TODD OWEN:

They know all of this.

MICHAEL MORELL:

They know all of this. Right?

TODD OWEN:

They know all of this. Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So they know when they show up and raise their hand and say, "Seek asylum," that they've got some lengthy period of time where they are allowed to be in the United States and essentially as act as Americans.

TODD OWEN:

That's correct. And again, they know they will be held for a short period of time, and then they will ultimately be released, waiting that final appearance before an immigration judge.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Todd, what are the numbers that we're looking at here?

TODD OWEN:

Yes. Yes. The numbers. You know, 2019 really has been a year unlike what we've ever seen. I mean so far this year we're just under 926,000 apprehensions along our southern border. By comparison, last year, fiscal year '18, we were at 521,000, so we've almost doubled that in the course of the year. FY17, which was our record low year, we had 415,000 apprehensions.

What we had seen is in 2016 the numbers really increased significantly. We talked about the impact of the Flores agreement, the shift to family units. What was also in play in 2016 was the 2016 election. The presidential election. Our post-apprehension interviews when we would interview the folks that we took into custody, we'd say, "Why are you coming now?" And they would tell us one of two things. They would say, "We're coming in now, because if the Democratic president nominee wins, we're all getting asylum." Or they would tell us, "We're coming in now because if the Republican nominee wins, they will build the wall and we will not be allowed to come."

So the human smugglers that attract and entice these individuals, primarily from the northern triangle in the last few years, they play right into this messaging. They are telling them, "Come now, because either you're going to get asylum or you're going to get locked out." So that really drove the numbers significantly in 2016.

2017 we had the new administration come in. There was, you know, tough talk on the immigration changes that were coming. The numbers dropped to 45 year lows in 2017. Unfortunately, as we went into 2018 and now into 2019, that tough talk was not followed up by any Congressional action to actually change the immigration system and adjust some of the flaws that are allowing and encouraging these most vulnerable populations to head to our borders.

So we've, again, seen this huge spike. Started in 2018, and we were completely overwhelmed in 2019. In May of 2019 144,000 apprehensions, which had been our highest level of monthly apprehensions ever, by comparison the May of 2018, the year prior, was only at 51,000. So almost three times as many this May as opposed to last May.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes. So talk about these human traffickers. Right?

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL: These people who make a living helping these families cross.

TODD OWEN:

Yes. They control the process from start to finish. So they are in the communities throughout the northern triangle and elsewhere. They are enticing these individuals. They do receive a fee for it. They make a lot of money by smuggling these individuals--

MICHAEL MORELL:

How much?

TODD OWEN:

--through the border?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you have a sense?

TODD OWEN:

It's thousands of dollars in some cases.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Per person?

TODD OWEN:

Per person. It's per person. It's a very dangerous proposition that they're offering. I mean they treat these people as they're not human. You know, they don't care about their well-being. They will take them on routes throughout Mexico where they're at great danger. They will bring them to the border and push them across through the desert in the heat of the summer. They have no regard for these individuals that they are exploiting to make money to bring up to our borders.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay. Talk about two things. One is the conditions of confinement.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right? Everybody sees the stuff on TV.

TODD OWEN:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Can you talk about conditions of confinement. How much control you have over that. What the law says. How much policy leeway you have.

TODD OWEN:

Right, right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How you think about that.

TODD OWEN:

Right. The conditions of confinement, I mean this is an issue that, again, has been on the news quite frequently, but I think it's important to state from the start is that our detention facilities, both at the ports of entry and at the Border Patrol stations were never intended for long-term detention and never built for families. These are jail cells, similar to what you find in a police station in any metropolitan city. These are small cells--

MICHAEL MORELL:

These are for the adult males who traditionally came across the border.

TODD OWEN:

Right. That we would hold for a short period of time until we turned them over for prosecution to the prison system or whatnot there. Now, we are faced with all of these huge family units in 2016 and facilities that were not equipped for that. So, you know, we are limited in terms of our facilities.

In terms of the care, though, we have very strong standards in terms of the care and the feeding. You know, what food is made available to them. Three meals a day. The temperatures at these detention facilities are very specifically set. There's been a criticism that these, they classical them ice boxes. It's just not true. That the temperatures are set within the norms. And we have oversight by the Office of Inspector General. They will come in unannounced at any one of our detention facilities to take a look at that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

This is your inspector general or DHS's--

TODD OWEN:

This is DHS's inspector general.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay.

TODD OWEN:

So they will come in unannounced, as they often do at our ports of entry and our Border Patrol stations, to make sure we are following our conditions of detainment in terms of the care and the custody of the individuals.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then what about family separation? So a lot of discussion about that. Is that dictated by law? Is that policy? How do you think about that?

TODD OWEN:

Well, two parts to it. Again, what we do at the ports of entry in terms of family separation and what that Border Patrol does between the ports of entry. I will tell you that at the ports of entry, which is the lawful means to enter the country and make an asylum claim, we do not separate the families outside of the adult that is with them has been arrested for whatever charges may be out there.

If there is a concern about the safety of that relationship. If we do not believe that the adult is the true parent or adult for that individual. If there's a contagious disease of some sort. But family separation at the ports is very, very rare.

The family separation policy from last April was occurring between the ports of entry when the decision was made that those individuals that are breaking the law by crossing illegally would be prosecuted. So when you have an adult with a child and the adult has been arrested and set up for prosecution, the family would be separated. That's no different than what we would see outside in the streets of Washington, D.C. If an arrest is made today--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sure.

TODD OWEN:

--of an adult with a child, the adult will be taken to jail. The child will be turned over to Child Protective Services. So what we were doing between the ports is no different than that with what takes place in any law enforcement activity now.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So in the last few months, has there been a change in the numbers downward?

TODD OWEN:

Yes, the numbers have significantly dropped in the last few months, from the high of 144,000 in May we dropped down to 104,000 in June, then 82,000 in July, and 64,000 for August.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And why is--

TODD OWEN:

So the numbers are down.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--that happening?

TODD OWEN:

I think it's a factor of a couple of things. First off, the Mexican authorities have really stepped up. So they've really stepped up at their border with Guatemala, so they are controlling the flow into Mexico. They are also taking actions to control the flow through Mexico. So they are enforcing their immigration laws at their transit points. They're making it much more difficult for those that are undocumented to game the system and enter through there. So that's one factor.

Another factor I believe of this is the Remain in Mexico or the Mexican Protection Protocols, MPP. This is basically when those individuals come into the U.S. and they make their initial asylum claim, instead of detaining them and then ultimately releasing them before they can go before a judge, we return them to Mexico to wait in Mexico in the shelters in Mexico until their court hearing.

So they will be processed. We'll take that initial claim. We'll, again, identify them. Fingerprint them. Take their initial statement, and then start that asylum claim process. But instead of detaining them, we will return them to Mexico, and then they will reappear at the port of entry when their court hearing. So I think the efforts of the Mexican authorities, the Remain in Mexico program, as well as the summer heat, has an impact as to why the numbers have come down so significantly--

MICHAEL MORELL:

And that must be a huge deterrent to people coming and asking for asylum, if they're going to stay in Mexico rather than in the United States.

TODD OWEN:

Well, they're still enabled to make that claim, but instead of being held in detention by us initially and then released into the interior, they're just asked to remain in Mexico at the shelters on the southern side of the border until their court hearing.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So what's your operational relationship like with the Mexicans?

TODD OWEN:

It's very good. It's very strong. Especially in the last couple of years it's significantly improved. So they will do joint operations with us. The Mexican Protection Protocols, the MPP, the Remain in Mexico, that is a joint operation between us and them.

We cannot just send the migrants back into Mexico. Mexico has to be willing to receive them. They've established shelters to help house and care and feed for them while they're in Mexico. So the relationship with Mexico is very strong right now.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Todd, one of the things you talked about at the private event that I heard you speak at, which really struck me, was the impact of the huge increase in asylum seekers on everything else you do.

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Could you talk about that a little bit?

TODD OWEN:

Yes. And that's, you know, my main concern. I mean we are a national security agency, first and foremost. With the increase that we have seen, we have had to pull officers and agents off of those front line duties, that narcotics interdiction mission, focused on counterterrorism mission, all of those other things we've done, we've had to pull officers away from those duties to care and process and retain custody of the migrants through this.

So when folks will say that this is just a humanitarian crisis, I see it as a humanitarian crisis and a national security crisis, because, quite frankly, there are fewer officers and agents on the line interdicting the illegal narcotics heading to our communities because they have to be pulled off to assist with the migrants.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you actually have a sense that the number of narcotics coming into the country has actually gone up as a result of what you just said?

TODD OWEN:

We don't know what has made it past us.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right.

TODD OWEN:

But I think it's safe to say that the drug traffickers are not giving us a break because they know we're overwhelmed with the migrants.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. They'd be taking advantage of this.

TODD OWEN:

They would be taking advantage of it. And that is very concerning when we have large sections of the border that are not defended to the degree that they should, because the officers and agents have been pulled to other duties. Our drug trafficking organizations, they see this.

We have spotters on every side of the Mexican border, across from our ports of entry. They know our shifts. They know our schedules. They know our resources. And they know when we're overwhelmed and they take advantage of that and exploit it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What about impacts at airports?

TODD OWEN:

At the airports we're still pretty well staffed right now, but for a three month period through the summer we did have to reassign officers from the airports down to assist the Border Patrol. So we've reassigned over 700 officers from the airports, the sea ports, the northern border to assist at the southern border.

So we did an increase in the wait times, the processing times, if you will, at the airports because of that. But it was absolutely necessary. The Border Patrol was completely overwhelmed and they needed our assistance. And again, as being one within CBP, we redirected CBP officers from our front line duties to assist the Border Patrol.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Todd, I know you're incredibly busy and you've been amazing with your time. I just want to ask you a couple more questions.

Like my former agency, like the CIA, sometimes we got stuck in the middle of the politics, and I feel a little bit that that's where your guys are today. And I'm just wondering how the politics that swirl around the immigration issue has affected your officers.

TODD OWEN:

Well, it has. It's been very deflating for a lot of our officers when they are characterized as things that they are not. These are career men and women who stepped up and wanted to do good. They wanted to serve their communities and protect their country. To be branded, as they have been, by some of the media, by some of our politicians, is just incredibly unfair. The immigration system need to be fixed. These problems need to be addressed. I don't know what the answers are, but someone needs to address these. They should not use us as pawns in the middle of what's taking place.

If you recall, back on November 25th when we had the attempted breach at San Ysidro, where the migrants attempted to run the port. They were unsuccessful at running the port, and then they went around the port and engaged the Border Patrol. And you saw those images on the media of the tear gassing and the rock throwing and things like that.

I went out to San Diego a few days after that to meet with our employees, and at one of the town halls I was hosting an officer stood up and said to me, he said, "You know, my neighbors are looking at me differently now, because they see me in a different light." And that's just very unfair to the men and women that are out there, who put their lives on the lien to protect the borders and to keep terrible things from entering this country. They deserve better than some of the treatment they're receiving in the media and by some on the Hill.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So has this created recruitment problems for  you? Retention problems? Or--?

TODD OWEN:

We've continued to do very well with recruitment. I think folks that want to get into this line of work see the opportunities we present and see the opportunity to really do good. They haven't been deterred by that. Our numbers are incredible. Our staffing, our application numbers. We're very well in terms of our recruiting right now. But it does take effect over time. It really does.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then occasionally you'll pick up the paper and you'll see that one of your officers has misbehaved in some way or done something that I'm sure you're not proud of. Right?

TODD OWEN:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you handle those individual cases? And then both from the particular individual and then how do you handle it from a systemic perspective?

TODD OWEN:

Yes, it's very disappointing when we have our officers whose conduct fails us. Right? We have very clear standards of conduct. Our expectations as to what we expect our officers to do every day. When we have those instances, they instances they all get referred to our Office of Professional Responsibility, our Office of Internal Affairs, if you will. They're fully investigated and the officers and the agents are held accountable for their misconduct, up to removal if the situation warrants it.

But I think whenever we have these events that occur, and it is such a black eye on the agency, we start to lose the public trust. And when we lose the public trust, we're not going to be effective at the border security mission that we have. So each individual instance is terrible and is unacceptable, but when it has a greater impact on our overall mission and how we achieve that, that's where the real harm comes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes. And do you adjust your training?

TODD OWEN:

We do. We have very rigorous application standards, as well as internal controls throughout someone's hiring. So when we have a new hire, again, everyone has to go through a polygraph. So everyone coming into CBP for a law enforcement position has to pass a polygraph. So that's a very rigorous standard. We also offer very high starting salaries, if you will, compared to other agencies, so that we can recruit the best that is out there looking for employment right now.

Once on the job, we have integrity controls built into all of our processing. We have, in our airports and our land borders, you have the audio, the video of every inspection that's taking place. We have internal red team testing that we do to try to identify these types of problems. So I think comprehensively we have a very good approach to deal with the misconduct, but with 62,000 employees, there will be officers and agents that disappoint us.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes. So as when I was the number three at CIA, I was the disciplinarian. And so, you know, when officers did things they shouldn't do, it ended up on my desk. Right? And I think people should realize that in any large organization, you know, occasionally somebody's going to do something they shouldn't do. And the issue is really how do you handle it at that point, right?

TODD OWEN:

Yes. Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So let me ask you, Todd, maybe as a last question, might be the most difficult, is if Congress doubled your budget, what would you do with that money?

TODD OWEN:

Well, I would tell you, part of the biggest challenge that we have is the infrastructure. When you look at the ports of entry today, they are simply not designed for the threats that we face for what we have to do every single day. We have about $6 billion worth of needs for our facilities, and every year Congress gives us about $146 million. So GSA, who owns some of--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Investing in your future --

TODD OWEN:

Invest it in the future. Right. So that we can deploy the latest technology that we need to process the cargo, process the individuals, address the risks. I mean we have 77 million vehicles that cross in from the Mexican border every year. Every one of those vehicles is a potential threat pathway.

There is technology out there that will allow us to scan every one of those vehicles, and through the investments Congress has made in the last two years, we're able to start moving down that path. But continued investments in that technology is important. Continued investments in our personnel is important as well. We have workload staffing models that shows that we need about another 2,800 CBP officers, just at the ports of entry, to deal with the volumes that we see so we can address the threats that we have.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Todd, thank you so much for joining us today.

TODD OWEN:

Thank you for having me.

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