Newly minted U.S. Customs chief Gil Kerlikowske on Friday told a gathering of 800 import and export professionals in Washington, D.C., that he will use his power to promote the nation's economic security just as vigorously as homeland security.
On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee for commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Kerlikowske, who had served as the president's drug czar since 2009, was nominated in August and approved by the Senate Finance Committee in mid-January. Business groups had expressed frustration in recent weeks with the delay on a final vote for the head of the largest agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
Kerlikowske made an unannounced visit at noon Friday to the Washington Hilton to address CBP's annual Trade Symposium before it adjourned. In brief remarks, he tried to put at ease any misgivings that his law enforcement background might lead to indifference over whether security and compliance actions slowed down legitimate trade.
The former Seattle police chief said he spent a lot of time since the August meeting with business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to stress "the importance, and the recognition, and the understanding that I have about moving trade and commerce, and that not only is border security critical, but also our economic security."
Kerlikowske said he has a leg up on many of the issues CBP deals with because he worked closely with CBP as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He also was involved in his previous capacity with helping craft the U.S. free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia as they related to narcotics and said he has an "excellent working relationship" with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.
One of the biggest challenges facing CBP is getting other federal agencies to standardize their inspection and import/export review procedures, especially by following a risk-based management approach so that highly compliant companies don't have to bother with redundant bureaucratic requirements. The foundation for more modern trade enforcement policies is CBP's development of the International Trade Data System. President Obama recently issued an executive order that agencies have their information technology systems ready to participate in the streamlined data-sharing effort by the end of 2016.
Kerlikowske, without directly addressing ITDS, said one of his strengths as drug czar was to bring people together in the inter-agency process to develop and implement a $25 billion national drug control budget. Kerlikowske said policies will continue to be "co-created" with industry stakeholders because "nothing works well in a vacuum."
Deputy Commissioner Thomas Winkowski, who served as acting commissioner for nearly a year, said Customs is grateful to finally have permanent leadership in place because it needs an advocate on Capitol Hill and within the administration to ensure support for resources and its modernization efforts.
Kerlikowske is the first Senate-confirmed commissioner in five years. CBP has been operating under a string of acting commissioners and one, Alan Bersin, who was temporarily installed by Obama using a technical loophole to overcome Finance Committee objections.
Among the issues on Kerlikowske's plate will be ensuring the on-time completion of the Automated Commercial Environment and ITDS; developing a rulemaking for collection of pre-departure air cargo data; centralizing and simplifying the entry process; developing capability to enforce export regulations; and immigration enforcement.