Customs agent shares front-line view
By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- If the fight against international terrorism were a football game, Roger Urbanski of the U.S. Customs Service figures the nation would be in some jeopardy.
"The terrorists are on the offensive all the time," said Urbanski, special agent in charge of Customs' Tampa office, which oversees agents and inspectors from Pensacola through Central Florida. "It's first and goal at the 1-yard line and all they have to do is score a touchdown. And if they fail, they just have first and goal at the 1-yard line all over again."
It may not sound promising, but Urbanski, who spoke Tuesday to seniors attending an Elderhostel program at Eckerd College, said the prognosis is better than it seems. Still, defending the nation will take a concerted effort.
"The burden of protecting the U.S. against these people is bigger than any one agency," Urbanski said. "Every citizen of the U.S. shares that burden. Every agency shares that burden."
Urbanski, a 30-year veteran of the Customs Service who appeared equal parts hard-boiled lawman and stand-up comic, was speaking to 30 seniors from all over the country. They are attending a week of seminars put on by the Foreign Service Retirees Association of Florida through the not-for-profit Elderhostel program. The program at Eckerd, which houses the retirees in dormitories and transports them to an array of seminars and events, is in its 24th year.
Understandably, Tuesday's discussion and the questions from the group related largely to the events of Sept. 11 and what Urbanski's agency is doing to stop it from happening again.
He spoke amid reports that President Bush will request that Congress undertake a complete restructuring of the Customs agency, removing it from the Treasury Department and placing it in the Department of Justice as a new agency created from Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Urbanski, who took over as special agent in charge of the Tampa district in 1999, offered no opinions on the plan, which has not yet been fully explained by the White House and was just trickling out Tuesday morning. But he made clear that the history of Customs, created in 1789, was important to him and others at the agency. He minced no words in a brief mention of recent gaffes at INS, which issued student visas to two dead hijackers months after the terrorist attacks.
"I want to start off by saying that I am not with the Immigration and Naturalization Service," he said to howls of laughter as he began his address. "I guess you know why I say that." Later, he added, "people make mistakes, but that was a doozy. That's just unacceptable."
In the months since Sept. 11, Urbanski has been forced to change some of his practices. For example, he now carries his sidearm with him on every commercial flight he takes, checking in with the airline to let them know he is aboard in case of trouble.
He recounted the tale of a recent flight, when he showed his Customs identification and made the flight officials aware of his gun before his wife was pulled from the line to have her bag searched.
The security guard found a pair of scissors, his wife's favorites, and said he would have to confiscate them.
"I said listen, I have a 9mm Glock with 14 shots in it that I'm taking on board, how about you let me take the scissors?" Urbanski said. But the guard was unbowed.
The scissors stayed behind, reminding Urbanski how everyone has to make sacrifices since the United States was attacked.
He offered an array of war stories from his 30-year career, including the time a woman plopped in the seat next to him on an international flight back to America and explained how she had received two receipts for everything she purchased, one showing the real price she paid and one she would show to Customs.
The woman, who arrived at the airport late and barely made the plane, "said it was the worst day of her life," Urbanski recalled. Then she told him about the dual receipts and he introduced himself as a Customs agent. "I told her her day was about to get a lot worse."
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