The right man at the right time

The right man at the right time

Robert Bonner, the retiring commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, has served during possibly four of the most critical years that Customs, the U.S. and the U.S. international trade community have faced. Great challenges make great leaders, and no commissioner has faced greater challenges during the nearly 230-year history of the first agency authorized by the continental Congress.

The U.S. international trade community is indeed fortunate that it was Judge Bonner nominated to serve as commissioner in June 2001, three months before our world was turned upside down. Sept. 11 challenged the U.S. in ways that it had never been challenged before. Sept. 11 changed our foreign and domestic policies. It changed the role of government in protecting U.S. citizens from foreign threats; it led to the war on terrorism at home and abroad. When Robert Bonner was sworn in 13 days after the attacks as the 17th commissioner of Customs, he found himself squarely in the midst of the war on terrorism. He more than rose to the occasion.

Commissioner Bonner's long public career and broad perspective, gained as administrator of the Federal Drug Administration and as a federal judge, served the country well during this crisis. He demonstrated uncommon judgment and the courage to stand behind his strategies, often in the face of withering criticism. Had he not been Customs commissioner after Sept. 11, it is possible, even likely, that international trade would be far less and far different. The ramifications on the U.S. economy should not be underestimated.

On Sept. 11, the natural inclination was to shut everything down. Virtually every city closed its tallest buildings and other vulnerable sites. Cries also arose on Capitol Hill to close our borders, our seaports and our airports. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., were among the many elected officials who proposed that import containers be stopped, opened and hand-inspected. Anyone engaged in international trade knows that this would have brought trade, and our entire economy, to a screeching halt.

Commissioner Bonner could have taken the "easy way out." He could have told Capitol Hill that he agreed with them, that he needed many thousands of additional inspectors and tens of millions of dollars for added personnel, screening equipment, etc. As we saw with the explosive growth of the Transportation Security Administration and its legions of airport screeners, Congress would have given it to him. And what federal bureaucrat would mind expanding his budget and power?

But Commissioner Bonner isn't a federal bureaucrat; he took a principled position. He patiently explained at congressional hearings, to the media, and to his superiors at the Department of Homeland Security and the White House why opening every container was expensive, inefficient, ineffective and unnecessary. Other approaches would work better, and would balance the always-competing interests of security and commerce. Meanwhile, he led Customs in implementing new anti-terrorism programs such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Container Security Initiative.

For more than two centuries, Customs had operated independently, even within the Treasury Department. Following Sept. 11 and the creation of the DHS, Customs changed masters and its name. The commissioner's role changed significantly. Now heading one of several divisions of a Cabinet-level department, Bonner had to spend far more time and resources briefing, advising and gaining approval of senior officials. He had to sell his vision of enhanced security without impeding global commerce.

Turf-fighting is present in any Cabinet-level department, especially a new one with powerful divisions such as the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Under a leader of lesser stature, Customs could have become subservient to the TSA and sister agencies whose mission is law enforcement. But under Bonner, Customs maintained its jurisdiction, still capable of developing its own policies and advocating them.

Today, Customs maintains its identity and essential role. Commerce flows relatively efficiently, considering the threats revealed on Sept. 11 and the pressure from Congress and the media for dramatic security measures. These have been extraordinarily dangerous and tumultuous years, but Commissioner Bonner has made them less tumultuous and less dangerous than they might have been. Customs, the U.S. and the international trade community owe Commissioner Bonner a debt of gratitude for his legacy, which will be felt for decades to come.

Peter Friedmann is Washington, D.C.-based counsel to international trade interests. He can be contacted at (202) 783-3333, or at