Pardon me, sir, your luggage is radioactive

When the radioactive "alarm" on the belt of US Customs Inspector Ray Mace went off, he was puzzled, he says. With the possibility of criminals and terrorists trying to smuggle nuclear weapons or materials into the United States, many customs inspectors now wear the detectors. But this was the first time it had gone off on Mr. Mace.

The inspector, who works at Boston's Logan Airport, took aside the man who had set off the alarm, along with his luggage. When Mace stood near the luggage the meter registered zero. But when he stood near the passenger, there was a mid-level reading.

"So I told him what had happened," Mace says. "He thought for a moment and then said that he had just had a physical where they had used a radioactive isotope to take a reading on something. It was funny, but reassuring, you know. If it'll pick up a reading on a week-old physical, imagine the reading if a terrorist actually did try to bring in a weapon through the airport."

The radioactive detector is just one example of how the US Customs Service is using technology. After the recent seizure of several suspected terrorists along the US-Canada border, the service drafted a plan to define security threats and how to respond to them.

Most of the time, the service works at Level 4, or normal conditions. If customs officials receive an intelligence report of possible terrorist activity, they quickly move to Level 3, increased awareness. Level 2 means more people on the borders with special equipment and intense scrutiny of people and goods. Level 1 is heightened alert with at least two officers manning all border crossings 24 hours a day and checking out everyone, no exceptions.

It's a big job, Mace says, because looking for terrorists is not the only thing customs inspectors do.

"Looking for drugs is a major part of our mission. Then there's trade compliance, looking for goods produced by forced labor, watching for trademark infringement, enforcing the endangered-species act. Oh yes, and food," he adds.

"People complain when we prevent them from bringing certain foods into the country, but a few years ago one Mediterranean fruit fly that got in resulted in $300-million worth of damage to the orange crop in Florida."

Yet for all the sophisticated equipment available to customs inspectors, it is still the human factor, like getting a hunch about a particular person, that can make the difference, according to Mace.

"You're always looking for something abnormal, out of the ordinary. That's actually how the inspector in Washington State caught Ahmed Ressad. One time, I noticed this gentleman who just kept staring at me. He seemed far more concerned with what I was doing than with getting his luggage. I honestly thought it might be drugs.

"But when I went through his luggage, I found a manila envelope with $20,000 in it. At that point, the guy swore. So I looked around some more and found $98,000 in cash." The man ended up paying a hefty fine for violating the law that says you must declare more than $10,000 in cash.

The seizure of suspected terrorists late in 1999 also helped the Customs Service's public image, which had been bruised by allegations that it had unfairly targeted minorities when looking for drugs at airports.

Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly instituted a program to better prepare customs officers to deal with issues like race, and it seems to be bearing fruit. In a 1999 survey of almost 2,000 travelers, 86 percent of respondents thought customs inspectors act professionally.

For someone like Mace, it's also a matter of pride. "Ninety-five percent of the time, it's a job. But that other 5 percent makes it all worthwhile," he says. "It's the greatest feeling in the world to know what you do protects lives, and we do protect lives."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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