"United Around High Human Values"

Jeffrey O. Baldwin, Sr. | 

Field Operations – US Customs and Border Protection |


For Jeffrey O. Baldwin, director of Field Operations for the Houston Office of US Customs and Border Protection, communication between government agencies and the populace they serve is an essential part of effective security.  “I want to listen to you and hear your concerns,” he announced to the audience of the Gulen Institute Luncheon Forum. And in the spirit of transparency, Baldwin enumerated the many changes in policy and practice that have been instituted since September 11th. He suggested that the increased security presence in airports and at the border must be accompanied by an effort to make clear both the methods and intentions of such a presence. “Ultimately,” Baldwin stated, “our goal is to build trust and to protect not only lives, but the rights and civil liberties of travelers.” The most dramatic of these changes has been the institution of the Department of Homeland Security. As Baldwin explained, the US Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service previously reported to different cabinet departments. But after September 11th, the need for increased intelligence and information sharing made this separation untenable. In the galvanization of the government that followed the terrorist attacks, these various agencies were consolidated into the Department of Homeland Security. According to Baldwin, this reorganization reflected a new and profound awareness of “a shared accountability for what happens in this country.” The Department of Homeland Security is now responsible for enforcing the laws of over 400 government agencies newly integrated around the single mission of preventing harm.


This clarity of purpose has made the nation more able to adapt to evolving threats, Baldwin suggested. The peculiar difficulty posed by terrorism is that the illicit actions of a single individual can put a great number of people in danger. And with 100 million passengers crossing the border every day, Baldwin admitted that security policies based on universal suspicion can amount to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. As an alternative, he framed the work of the Department of Homeland Security as an attempt to “blow the hay away so that the needle will reveal itself.” With key advance information, security agents would be able to see through the high volume of traffic and respond swiftly to warning sings or potential threats. For Baldwin, this important shift in the approach to customs and border protection is made possible by recent inter-agency cooperation, new technological developments, and ultimately, the cooperation and support of the public.


He went on to identify several ways in which this advance information can be collected.

“Trusted traveler” programs allow passengers to voluntarily release certain details regarding their travel, which can expedite the airport screening process and allow security agents to better manage their scrutiny. Baldwin also noted that the US has begun to screen people and cargo in other countries, and such broad information gathering was not standard practice before September 11th. Finally, partnerships with various trade communities allow the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that a company’s international supply chains are not compromised.


Baldwin insisted that the increased collection and analysis of travel information has enhanced security by both minimizing risk and safeguarding citizens from groundless suspicion, although he was careful to note the distinction between analysis based on advance information and targeting based on culture, race, or religion. Rather than “targeting” certain individuals for suspicion over others, Baldwin proposed that it is precisely this sort information gathering that can allow security agencies to transcend potential prejudices. “Preventing terrorism is not about focusing on race or ethnicity; it is about focusing on attitudes and behavior,” he asserted. In this sense, advance information would allow security agents to screen for suspicious purchases or past activities, a much more potentially productive exercise than unduly scrutinizing every Muslim traveler who passes through an airport.


Nevertheless, several members of the audience expressed their concern that such analysis could unintentionally promote racial and cultural profiling among customs and border patrol agents. Baldwin addressed these fears directly in the lively question and answer session that followed his presentation, reiterating that no department of the government tolerates culture-based targeting. He pointed to the efforts security agencies have made to ensure the cultural sensitivity of their practices and noted that the Customs and Border Protection Office has partnered with the University of Houston to put together cultural training for its officers. “For example,” he added, “part of our training is alerting the customs agents to the importance of hajj, or ‘pilgrimage.’ We make sure that customs agents allow religiously significant artifacts to be brought back into the country.”


Discussion then turned to a recent story in WIRED magazine that exposed controversial FBI “training materials” used in one presentation in Quntico, VA. These documents alleged a direct connection between a person’s adherence to the Muslim faith and their propensity for violence, and were used as a part of the training of counter-terrorism agents. Audience members at the forum were understandably concerned about these depictions of the Muslim faith, especially in the training materials of security agents. Patricia Villafranca, an FBI special agent, spoke up to clarify the issue. She described the author of the controversial briefings as an outsider giving a non-mandatory presentation, not an FBI sanctioned instructor, and she regretted that his material had not been reviewed.


Both Villafranca and Baldwin assured the audience that the FBI is careful to vet all of its official training materials with Muslim clergy, and that this incident is not representative of official policy. “This is really about education,” Baldwin continued. Not only must the border patrol and customs agents be educated regarding the customs and practices of different faiths, but as security agents, “we must go out into the community to explain just what we do and what we intend.” Baldwin stressed that it is the responsibility of the government to act transparently and actively dispel misconceptions about what security entails. To this end, Baldwin described his involvement in various outreach programs. “In a free society, we cannot stop misinformation from being printed, but we can educate the local community.”


But even if official training manuals are culturally neutral and do not explicitly promote cultural targeting, the question persisted: “How will individual officers balance their training with the cultural input they receive in the press? Perhaps even with their own cultural suspicions?” Baldwin answered by reasserting the need for advance information. If agents are equipped with adequate information on each traveler, then they will presumably be less influenced by what they see immediately before them. What’s more, there are checks and balances in place to ensure that no one opinion will determine who is screened or how a screening happens. “I can remember having the same conversation with people from Columbia thirty years ago,” he offered. “They were concerned that everyone traveling from Columbia would be treated as a suspected drug smuggler.” Today Muslim travelers are concerned about similar profiling, but Baldwin insisted that national security agencies have never promoted culture-based targeting. As always, fixation on religious or cultural markers can distract from real signs of danger elsewhere.


Last modified: July 12, 2023