As a top field officer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Brian J. Humphrey helps keep the western U.S. safe
By Chris A. Smith
The Port of Oakland is not a human-sized place.
Stacks of shipping containers stretch into the wide blue sky, monoliths of gleaming metal overhung by skyscraping cranes that methodically load crates on and off of cargo ships. Far below, semi-cabs and SUVs trundle to and fro, mice in the shadow of giants.
In one corner of the terminal, a Customs and Border Protection officer inhabits a specialized utility truck, peering into a few dozen of the 500,000 containers that pass through the California port each year. Ghostly images float on the computer monitor: X-rays of the containers, transmitted from a hydraulic arm on the vehicle. The officer is looking for drugs, undeclared currency, bootleg DVDs or football jerseys—anything, really, that can be hidden in a metal can and sent across the ocean. He is trained to scan for anomalies in the images: a patch of
darkness where there should be light, a smudgy shape that doesn’t look quite right. The work requires a keen eye.
Brian J. Humphrey ’85 CBM, a burly 51-year-old with piercing blue eyes, watches closely from the back of the truck. Humphrey is the director of field operations for CBP’s western region. His territory, like the towering mounds of cargo mounded dockside, is super-sized as well, spanning five time zones and 10 states, from Colorado to Alaska, including such far-flung outposts as Guam and Saipan.
Humphrey wears a uniform and a gun on his hip, but as the top field officer in the Bay Area, he spends most days in a downtown San Francisco office managing the 1,500 employees under his command. Today he’s touring CBP’s Bay Area facilities at the request of a reporter, and he seems to be enjoying it.
The images scroll past on the monitor: wine from Chile, dried fruit from the Philippines. Humphrey nods in satisfaction. All seems above-board, but that’s not always the case. This summer, for instance, agents discovered a shipment of shark fins, a banned Chinese delicacy probably intended for clandestine Chinatown menus. In December, they found 2,300 rounds of ammunition stashed in the air filters of two cars bound for Mongolia.
He describes the work this way: “We’re looking for that needle in the haystack. It’s all about reducing the haystack so we can find that small number of bad people and shipments.”
Brave new world
When Humphrey began his customs career 24 years ago, it was a different world—slower moving, less globalized and, from a border perspective, more benign. Nothing was computerized, and agencies seldom shared intelligence or worked together.
Then everything changed. First came the technological revolution—an endless stream of surveillance-driven intelligence and data crunching, available at a few keystrokes. “It’s unrecognizable from where we were 20 years ago,” he says.
Next came the attacks of Sept. 11, which prompted a massive organizational overhaul. Customs merged with the Border Patrol and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspection division to create the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency—61,000 employees at last count. Then, in 2003, they were rolled into the brand-new Department of Homeland Security.
After the reshuffle, these previously separate agencies began sharing intelligence. They didn’t stop looking for narcotics, invasive insects or undocumented immigrants, but they had a new mission: counterterrorism.
“Our role completely changed,” recalls Carl Ambroson, a retired Chicago port director who has known Humphrey since the late 1980s. “All of a sudden, the No. 1 priority was terrorism.”
To outside eyes, this new omnibus agency represents an overwhelming assortment of acronyms and responsibilities, with officers patrolling the Mexican border and flying drones over Washington state and steering go-fast boats through the Florida Keys. Agents tend to be busy: On a typical day last year, customs arrested 54 wanted criminals and discovered more than 200 harmful pests, seized 11,660 pounds of drugs and confiscated $3.5 million of bootleg products.
Humphrey’s branch, meanwhile, is responsible for the security of every official international port of entry—airports, harbors, mail-sorting centers—from Honolulu to Boise to the Northern Mariana Islands. So far this year, his San Francisco field office (which includes Portland, Ore.) has seized 94 pounds of drugs and $3 million of undeclared or illicit currency, arrested 160 people and intercepted 73 fake documents.
For all the change, Humphrey notes, the cat-and-mouse dynamic of his work remains the same. “The bad guys count on sheer volume,” he says, “the universe of sea containers, the universe of truck containers.
“And if a small percentage makes it through, that’s enough for them to make their money.”
Despite all of the reorganization and refocusing, one thing hasn’t changed. CBP, Humphrey says, is still the first and last line of defense. “If we’re not at the border doing this, who is?” he posits.
From crops to criminals
Next stop is San Francisco International Airport, which handles more than 50 international flights a day. Taking the corridors at a near-trot, Humphrey heads for one of the arrival halls. An old copy of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list—a collection of al-Qaida kingpins, with a few of the names crossed out—hangs on a wall in the office. The number of terrorism suspects CBP encounters is a closely guarded secret. But, as Humphrey says, “That’s what we get out of bed and go to work for each day.”
Out in baggage claim, a beagle wearing a blue vest approaches a small backpack and sits down to signal his find. An inspector opens the pack and pulls out a bunch of bananas—forbidden because they might carry crop-destroying fruit flies. The backpack’s owner, a glum-looking man in pink Crocs returning from Thailand, is sent for closer inspection at an X-ray machine. The dog gets a treat.
A few minutes later, an agent tells Humphrey that a man wanted on a California warrant is being questioned in a holding room. CBP, Humphrey explains, is hooked into airline passenger manifests as well as local, national and international law enforcement databases. The idea, he says, is to identify suspicious passengers before the plane even disembarks—“to push the borders out.”
In this case, the guy was as good as caught when he stepped onto the plane.
Working for the public
Humphrey has spent almost his entire professional life in law enforcement. He grew up in the small northern Illinois town of Milan, the fourth of five kids. Though he loved sports, he gravitated toward governmental affairs. “As soon as I was old enough to help the local party,” he remembers, “I hung fliers on screen doors.”
After getting an associate’s degree at Black Hawk College in the Quad Cities area in 1983, Humphrey transferred to the University of Illinois Springfield (then called Sangamon State University). He majored in economics, served as student senate president and worked on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign in 1984, organizing the vote at the school’s campus housing area.
As part of the school’s “applied study” semester, Humphrey interned with Democratic state Rep. Joel Brunsvold, an experience which gave Humphrey an insider’s view of how government worked. “You got to see it in real time,” he says. “The give-and-take and the relationships that are built were not only exciting but made me feel real good about the process.”
“There was a sense of the Boy Scout about him,” says college friend Porter McNeil, MA ’86 PAA, a political consultant who worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run and for Obama strategist David Axelrod. “He had this sense of mission early on. I’m not surprised he’s in public service today.”
When Humphrey graduated in 1985, the economy was in a rut and good jobs were scarce. He joined the Army and was posted overseas to Frankfurt as a military police officer. It was the height of the Cold War, and American forces in West Germany were worried not just about the Soviets but about political terrorism—assassinations by radicals such as the Baader-Meinhof gang or discothèque bombings by Libyan agents. For Humphrey, it was a formative experience. “We were constantly under … threat,” he says.
Back stateside, Humphrey signed up for another stint in the service. He took a course in military customs, clearing soldiers returning from international postings, and when he left the Army in 1989, he found an entry-level customs job at the international mail inspection facility at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
In that position, he interdicted shipments of child pornography, contraband sausages and 45-pound boxes full of pot. He loved the work. “The law enforcement piece, the international piece, the travel piece, it all seemed exciting,” he says.
Humphrey had found his calling.
Twenty minutes to find a bomber
He began climbing the bureaucratic ladder, bouncing between Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. As a lifelong bachelor, he had no family to complicate his frequent relocations.
Humphrey was posted to Los Angeles International Airport shortly after the Twin Towers fell and the transition to the Department of Homeland Security began. It wasn’t easy. Customs had existed as a stand-alone agency since 1789, and resentment at the consolidation ran high.
Ambroson, the retired Chicago port director, was stationed at LAX at the time. There was resistance, he says, to the new emphasis on terrorism from virtually every quarter of the agency—except from the crew under Humphrey’s command.
“I never heard one thing out of his group,” Ambroson says. Humphrey had “diplomatic abilities” that few other leaders did. “He could see what was going on at the highest level and then implement it on the ground.”
In 2010, Humphrey was promoted to port director at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He arrived just after Faisal Shahzad, the so-called “Times Square Bomber,” attempted to blow up an SUV in midtown Manhattan. Drawing intelligence from previous customs interviews with Shahzad, CBP officers caught the Pakistani-born American citizen just minutes before his Dubai-bound flight departed JFK. “With literally about 20 minutes’ notice to find this guy,” Humphrey says, it was fortunate that all of the systems worked.
In summer 2012, Humphrey took command of field operations for CBP’s western region. He works from a 16th-floor office looking out across the Bay, where he shuttles between meetings and conducts conference calls. It’s a long way from the front lines, but he manages to spend approximately 30 percent of his time on the road visiting field offices.
Recently, he’s toured the Pacific islands of Guam and Saipan, CBP’s southernmost ports. He’s also trekked to Poker Creek, Alaska, the northernmost land border, a seasonal post where officers live in log cabins a four-hour drive from a grocery store. “It’s … rustic,” Humphrey says, searching for the right word. “In winter the building itself is snowed over.”
The reason for the trips is simple: “The troops need to see that they’re connected to the operation,” he says. “They need to see the boss.”
Given CBP’s size and resources, the agency is sometimes called on to help out in emergencies. In August, a kidnapping that began in San Diego ended in Idaho when CBP Black Hawk choppers ferried FBI teams into the wilderness to confront—and ultimately kill—James Lee DiMaggio. In July, Humphrey’s crew was among the first on the scene when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed at SFO.
As he puts it, “Our primary mission is to protect the border, but it doesn’t mean things stop there.”
Not everyone is happy about CBP’s post-9/11 expansion. Civil libertarians worried about drone surveillance and politically inspired harassment charge that the agency has too much power and too little oversight. In August, the story of Laura Poitras, an Oscar-nominated journalist who is working with NSA leaker Edward Snowden, made headlines when she reported being detained and interrogated at the border more than 40 separate times since 2006.
Humphrey says he takes all such criticism seriously. “Our job is trying to find the one bad guy out of a huge number of good people,” he says. “I can appreciate anybody’s concern, but I’ll tell you, [of the CBP officers] that I know, they know what they’re here to do. They try to do the right thing.”
The last stop of the day is the international mail facility, where CBP officers examine incoming material for contraband. When Humphrey arrives, some of the afternoon’s spoils are stacked on a long table. There’s a shipment of snazzily packaged “Vigorous” Chinese medicine pills containing illegal “bovine elements”; a belt made out of a whole snake (head included) that violates international endangered species laws; and a forearm-sized packet of white powder that initial tests peg as MDPV—the banned stimulant known as “bath salts.”
Plucking this stuff from the flow of legal mail is a Herculean task. But in a way, that’s what Humphrey—the rookie mail inspector who became a chief—loves about it.
Mail inspection, he says, is customs work at its most elemental. “There’s no live body in front of you, no indications of fear or nervousness that can alert you,” Humphrey says.
“You’ve just got a parcel, an X-ray and your years of experience.”
Chris Smith is a San Francisco freelance writer and college journalism and geopolitics instructor. His work appears in AFAR, California and Utne Reader.