This is one in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features Homeland Security medal finalists from U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nael Samha, program manager in the Office of Technology, and Thomas Roland, Jr., program manager in the Office of Field Operations.

After an airline passenger flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, attempted to set off plastic explosives sewn in his underwear, the Department of Homeland Security ordered a full-scale review of the way federal agents screen and target individuals entering and leaving the United States.

One of the resulting security reforms was the development and deployment of a mobile electronic device for federal officers at airports and at U.S. land borders. The technology involves use of a commercial smartphone that has software to scan machine-readable travel documents and access law enforcement databases, allowing agents working away from computer terminals and in remote areas to instantly perform background checks on suspicious travelers.

The development and deployment of the mobile technology was the handwork of two U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees, Nael Samha, a program manager in the Office of Technology, and Thomas Roland, Jr., a program manager in the Office of Field Operations
Deployed so far at 10 airports overseas and at dozens of U.S. land border crossings, the device has enabled CBP personnel to identify illegal aliens, narcotics traffickers, weapons smugglers, currency violators, individuals with outstanding arrest warrants and potential terror suspects in real-time.

Samha led the team of engineers and developers that created the hand-held application and supervised the many technical aspects of the project, ensuring that all security requirements were met. Roland understood the needs of field CBP officers and border patrol agents, and determined how it could be used most effectively on a day-to-day basis.

Both were involved in the pilot testing, the roll out and expansion of the program, the training of personnel and the adoption of improvements based on user feedback.

CPB officials said the technology has contributed to more than 450 successful enforcement actions since first implemented in 2010. In addition, it is now being used by CBP agriculture specialists and officers at U.S. seaports to check and immediately release imported agricultural cargo that has passed inspection. Previously, agents conducted inspections and hours later, upon return to the office, entered inspection reports to remove cargo holds, often resulting in needless delays that cost businesses money and put the quality of the perishable products at risk.

The device is now available to more than 2,000 CBP officers.

“This is absolutely a game-changer for us,” said John Wagner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations. “It gives us the ability to run database queries in locations where agents are not standing in front of desktop computers. It gives us the chance to be more reactive and to conduct more law enforcement operations outside traditional areas, and to increase the number of apprehensions and seizures.”

In 2011, for example, border patrol agents on a roving patrol in Texas stopped a suspicious individual and ran his name and date of birth through the smartphone. They discovered he was considered armed and dangerous, and was the subject of an arrest warrant. It was later determined he was a member of Mexican organized crime.

On another occasion, CBP officers stopped a bus traveling from Arizona to Mexico, conducted a background check using the device, and found a passenger who was wanted for narcotics smuggling. In another case, officers on a marine patrol last year with the sheriff’s office from Detroit stopped a small vessel and determined an individual onboard was the subject of multiple arrest warrants.

Donna Shaw of CBP’s Office of Information Technology said officers working airport boarding areas can immediately investigate travelers if they witness suspicious behavior or are alerted to potential problems by the airlines, eliminating the need to take individuals to a secondary screening area and contact the target center. She said the device can detect doctored pictures or help determine if a document is fraudulent.

Roland said he and Samha work closely as a team, noting, “I am a law enforcement officer who wants to be a geek, and Nael is a geek who wants to be a law enforcement officer.”
Together, he said, they have provided CBP field personnel with “needed technology that has changed how we work and how we do business.”

Samha said the device puts at the fingertips of CBP officers a tool that enables them to be more effective in doing their jobs, thereby helping “protect the nation by stopping people who are smuggling drugs and weapons and engaged in money laundering.”

“That’s what’s important to me,” he said.