Customs Service, United States

Customs Service, United States


One of the oldest bureaus of the federal government, the United States Customs Service was founded in the first year of George Washington's presidency, and for decades the tariffs it collected funded virtually all government activities. Today, Customs is a vast border security force that yearly interdicts hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of illegal goods. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Customs became a significant component in homeland security operations, and in March, 2003, it moved from the Department of the Treasury to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Among the post-September, 2001, measures it has adopted is a port security program that requires shippers to provide advance notification of cargo arriving on American shores.


Soon after Washington took office as the nation's first president, Congress passed the Tariff Act, which Washington signed on July 4, 1789. Four weeks later, on July 31—in only the fifth act of congressional history—Customs was established to protect American ports of entry. Newspapers of the day called the Tariff Act the "second Declaration of Independence," an appellation based on something more than the date on which the act was signed: for the next 125 years, the revenue provided by import tariffs funded nearly the entire federal government.

Over the course of its long existence, Customs has administered programs that eventually passed to other departments. These included the supervision of revenue cutters, ships that patrolled the coastline—a service that ultimately became the U.S. Guard. Additionally, Customs collected hospital dues to assist sick and disabled seamen, a program now handled by the Public Health Service; collected import and export statistics before the Bureau of the Census was founded to undertake this responsibility; established standard weights and measures prior to the founding of the now-defunct National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology); and administered military pensions many decades before the founding of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Customs activities. Customs is responsible for ensuring that all imports and exports comply with U.S. laws and regulations; collecting and protecting revenue; and guarding against smuggling. Its specific duties include assessing and collecting duties, excise taxes, and penalties on imported goods; interdicting and seizing illegal items; processing persons, baggage, cargo, and mail; administering certain navigation laws; detecting and apprehending persons engaged in activities designed to circumvent Customs regulations; protecting American industry, as well as intellectual property rights, by enforcing laws to prevent illegal trade practices; enforcing import and export restrictions on dangerous items; and collecting import and export data for the compilation of international trade statistics. In addition to enforcing its own laws, Customs enforces some 400 other laws on behalf of more than 40 government agencies.

In fiscal year 2002, Customs processed some 415 million passengers and pedestrians entering or leaving U.S. territory. Additionally, it processed a total of 130 million boats, ships, passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, and aircraft, both private and commercial. In the course of these efforts, it arrested nearly 13,000 people and seized a wide array of contraband, including $204 million in illicit proceeds, $60 million in counterfeit goods, and $1.3 million in merchandise; almost 4 million pounds (1.8 million kg) of marijuana, nearly 168,000 pounds (76,200 kg) of cocaine, over 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg) of heroin, 7.5 million tablets of ecstasy, and more than 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) of methamphetamine; as well as nearly 40,000 firearms and 6.4 million rounds of ammunition.

Protecting Homeland Security

With a mission that already made it alert to the protection of U.S. borders and ports, Customs was a key component of homeland security even before the phrase gained widespread currency in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Following those attacks, Customs undertook new measures designed to tighten points of entry and protect the borders against suspicions persons and items.

One such measure was Operation Green Quest, in which Customs teamed with multiple federal agencies to target systems used by terrorist organizations to acquire and transfer funds. Established on October 25, 2001, Operation Green Quest issued 177 search warrants, and made 79 arrests and 70 indictments within a little more than a year. The program also netted $33 million in terrorist funds, some $21 million of it in the form of currency and monetary instruments seized as part of the Operation Green Quest bulk cash initiative.

On December 4, 2001, Customs partnered with U.S. industry in Project Shield America, established for the purpose of protecting against the acquisition and exploitation of technological products by terrorists and terror-sponsoring nations. (Among the latter, the federal government has identified seven governments: Cuba, Iran, Iraq,

A supervisor with the Bosnia-Herzegovina State Border Service Agency uses a fiberscope to examine the gastank of a pickup truck during the International Border Interdiction Training conducted by the U.S. Customs Service at the Hidalgo port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
A supervisor with the Bosnia-Herzegovina State Border Service Agency uses a fiberscope to examine the gastank of a pickup truck during the International Border Interdiction Training conducted by the U.S. Customs Service at the Hidalgo port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas.

Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan.) Of specific interest are U.S. munitions list items, and strategic dual-use technology.

Challenges. Post-September 2001 security measures also include several programs requiring advance notice of shipments. Through its Container Security Initiative, Customs places personnel at major foreign ports to pre-screen cargo bound for the United States. The 24-Hour Ruling, instituted in December, 2002, requires ocean carriers bringing goods to the United States to provide manifest information at least 24 hours prior to taking on cargo at the foreign port.

Additionally, in January 2003, Customs proposed new restrictions whereby it would receive four hours' advance electronic notification before imports are loaded into a truck. According to a report in Transport Topics, a number of truckers and shippers complained that this measure would cripple business, and one industry executive predicted that "These regulations will essentially eliminate same-day and next-day shipping." Similar restrictions imposed on deliveries by air and rail provoked protests from a wide array of shipping-related companies.

Disagreements with shippers may not be the only challenges Customs faces in its intensified mission of homeland security. By 2003, the service ran the danger of being overtaxed, with numerous activities across a broad spectrum, including counter-narcotics programs, new border security initiatives, financial investigations, and even child pornography stings. Additionally, in January, 2003, Customs deployed two Blackhawk helicopters and two Cessna Citation jets equipped with sensors to conduct 24-hour-a-day patrols over the skies of Washington, D.C., replacing military jets that had performed that role since September, 2001.

Further complicating the picture for Customs was its transition to DHS, which would require the separation of its border inspectors from its investigators under two different branches of the new department. As of March, 2003, as DHS began operations, Customs operatives faced the problem of developing a suitable technological interface with the department, and with each other.



Johnson, Jeff. "Truckers, Shippers Blast Customs Security Plan." Transport Topics no. 3521 (January 27, 2003): 1.

Mintz, John, and Spencer Hsu. "Customs Takes over Monitoring Local Skies." Washington Post. (January 28,2003): A6.

Skrzycki, Cindy. "Security in Mind, Customs Says Cargo Can Wait." Washington Post. (February 11, 2003): E1.

Weiner, Tim. "Along Borders, Tension and Uncertainty Prevail." New York Times. (March 1, 2003): A11.


U.S. Customs Service. < > (March 29, 2003).


Homeland Security, United States Department
IBIS (Interagency Border Inspection System)
Treasury Department, United States

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