A conversation on leadership with the deputy commissioner of u.s. customs and border protection – the washington post electricity allergy

Kevin K. McAleenan is the deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, making him the chief operating official of the 60,000-employee agency that handles customs, immigration and border security at our nation’s airports, seaports and along our land borders.

McAleenan, who played an integral role in the development and implementation of CBP’s antiterrorism strategy, discussed his motivation for public service, the challenges he faces and his passion for University of Michigan football. McAleenan was interviewed by Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A. I don’t think there’s any more challenging mission in law enforcement. We are at the center of counter-terrorism, border security and immigration, and expediting trade and travel. I really don’t think there’s a more important civilian agency of government.

A. It could mean dealing with a major interdiction involving the smuggling of people, or narcotics into the country or preventing a potential terrorist from boarding an aircraft at a foreign airport, or dealing with a budget issue. And then there are the long-term strategic meetings where we are defining requirements for technology three years from now or just keeping everything running in the right direction.

A. It’s the organizational and mission support side that really presents some significant management issues, including trying to recruit and hire top law enforcement personnel with very stringent requirements for passing polygraph tests, background investigations and drug-use history. We need to sustain 45,000 operators out of the 60,000-person workforce.

A. One of CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske’s priorities is earning and maintaining the public trust through the transparency of our policies, our responses to incidents, and our approach to ensuring the integrity in the workforce. If you’re unable to achieve that, you won’t have the support of the American people or Congress.

A. I’ve learned a lot from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. He has shown personal diligence on every key decision that he makes. He needs to understand every angle. He needs to be intellectually convinced. He doesn’t accept the briefing document, but he needs to work through it.

A. One experience was setting up our pre-clearance operations in Abu Dhabi. We were essentially doing the work that we usually do after a plane arrives in the United States, but doing it before the planes departs by ensuring all the travelers are permissible to enter the U.S., and that there’s nothing dangerous in their baggage or carry-on goods.

With the decision to expand into Abu Dhabi, we missed some critical steps in terms of building external support, so we ended up in a significant political battle. I learned from that experience. We went back to square one and did the hard work of explaining the value and the benefits for pre-clearance and worked closely with the air carriers, the aviation industry and our foreign partners, and we were able to pursue the expansion in a transparent manner.

A. I hope they would say that I’m extremely committed to the success of the agency and to our priority mission of preventing terrorists from coming into the country. I’ve been laser focused on that since day one. They would probably say I’m dialed in on that issue, maybe to a fault.