Who Is Gil Kerlikowske?

I had intended to write this column on my impressions of the 2013 Customs and Border Protection’s Trade Symposium, an annual event that I haven’t missed since its inception in 2001. In particular, I had wanted to use the gathering to gauge attendees’ reception to President Obama’s nomination of Gil Kerlikowske as his choice as CBP commissioner, a nomination that has raised concern and eyebrows within the trade community. Although the Oct. 24-25 symposium was postponed because of the government shutdown, I was still able to continue my assessment of Mr. Kerlikowske, which produced some interesting considerations.

So who is Gil Kerlikowske, and why does his nomination make the trade industry so nervous? According to published profiles, Robert Gil Kerlikowske began a career in law enforcement at the age of 23, starting as a street cop for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Police Department. After a successful climb in the department, including promotion to the head of its criminal investigation division, Kerlikowske was hired as chief of police for the Florida towns of St. Lucie and Fort Pierce in 1987 and 1990, respectively.

In 1994, Kerlikowske became police commissioner for Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1998 to join the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2001, Kerlikowske returned to local law enforcement as Seattle’s chief of police until his White House appointment in 2009, as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Although Kerlikowske’s career is certainly impressive, enforcement is just one element of Customs’ multiple and often inherently conflicting missions and responsibilities. It’s also one that must be skillfully balanced with trade facilitation — too little and you risk missing harmful contraband; too much and you risk becoming an impediment to commerce.

And then there’s the issue of border and immigration policy. A recent Fox News article posed questions from the perspective of what the author would want to ask as a member of the Senate Finance Committee as part of a nomination hearing. These included:

“What is it about your résumé that earned you the nomination to lead CBP?”

“Are you an expert in trade or security?”

— “What are your expectations of the private sector in helping CBP meet its responsibilities?”

The last commissioner to come from the law enforcement ranks was Raymond Kelly, who served in that capacity from 1998 to 2001. Kelly’s appointment by President Clinton was seen primarily as an effort to bring internal stability after a special Treasury Department report widely portrayed Customs as an agency at war with itself.

Enforcement did indeed jump to the forefront during Kelly’s tenure, with programs such as “Operation Brass Ring,” which reprioritized Customs resources to focus on narcotics smuggling. Although considered a success, the increased inspections drew complaints from the importing community over the costly delays and additional service fees it created.

Kelly, however, also can be credited with recognizing the need for Customs “to do business the way business does business,” inviting the trade community’s input on the Automated Commercial Environment system, and even for holding the first Trade Symposium.

Nevertheless, the very combination of “enforcement” and “CBP commissioner” in the same breath generally brings a knee-jerk cringe. But there’s also an ABC News article (“Why a Drug Czar Was Tapped to Guard the Border”) that provides an interesting consideration. The article points out that Kerlikowske’s tough stance on marijuana could be problematic for the president’s sweeping health care plan where, under the Affordable Care Act, certain health insurers now will need to provide services for drug abuse disorders.

But this will require a shift in federal drug policy away from its current enforcement-minded posture that, according to the article, Kerlikowske hasn’t radically reshaped during his tenure as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Therefore, “after years of rhetoric about a public health approach to drug policy, a fitting choice would be to choose a health expert, as opposed to a law enforcement officer.” Moving Kerlikowske to Customs would provide such an opportunity.

Perhaps by the time the next Trade Symposium is held, Kerlikowske’s nomination will have been approved and he will be able to address the attending representatives on his qualifications, objectives and approach. Then again, it’s also been pointed out that in his five years in office, President Obama has yet to get a Senate-confirmed commissioner in place, so this entire discussion may be purely academic.

Jerry Peck is a licensed customs broker and Global Trade Management expert with more than 30 years experience in regulatory compliance and GTM optimization solutions. Contact him at 469-235-5229, or at wgpeck@global-trade-ms.com.

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