From the Washington Times
Customs not playing hide-and-seek with carry-on contraband
Agents on front line against disease, disaster
by Meredith Somers
It's dinnertime at Washington Dulles International Airport, and Officer Steve Whittaker has found himself surrounded by a feast at the international-arrivals checkpoint — a pungent meal he has no plans to enjoy.
On a stainless-steel table, beef kabobs give off a spicy scent as they cool. A roasted chicken is wrapped in crinkled foil, one greasy drumstick visible. Halved apples and mangoes sit in a large bucket, browning in the air.
Peering into a dark carry-on suitcase, Officer Whittaker , an agricultural specialist, pulls a salted fish longer than his arm from a plastic bag, its shrunken eyes staring on either side of a gaping mouth.
“There's a little bit of a risk with this job,” he says, sticking his gloved hand around the fish's jagged teeth. “But it's interesting. I get to see the world without going anywhere.”
Officer Whittaker , 54, is one of 250 officers with the Dulles branch of Customs and Border Protection. Their job? Protect the country from foreign threats, be they animal, vegetable or narcotic .
Welcomes and warnings
All travelers on international flights pass through the 400,000-square-foot arrival terminals around the clock, which means the protection agency has officers on site 24/7. Because of a merger in 2003 after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security , officers at the different inspection stations — narcotics, agricultural and admissibility — can help one another.
“We enforce more than 400 federal, state and local laws,” said CBP supervisor Christopher Downing . “We keep the economy flowing. That's pretty much who we are.”
Last month, Dulles customs officers found $130,000 worth of cocaine hidden in 12 chocolate bars and juice boxes. The 4 pounds of illegal drugs probably would not have been found if the officers weren't thorough in their search through passengers' belongings, a department spokesman said.
Officers armed with latex gloves, cutting tools and a lot of patience man the narcotics stations at the terminal. Whether it's a random search or a check directed by declaration papers, each officer methodically inspects each piece of luggage and container that passes.
Not every bag has just clothing and tchotchkes. It's not uncommon for an officer to find containers full of food, homemade medicines packaged in recycled motor-oil containers, or even a full steering wheel, complete with 3-foot-long drive shaft.
Though hesitant to give away all of the department 's strategies, CBP supervisor Scott Struble said when it comes to passengers who might be attempting something illegal, the goal is “to try to know their story before they get here.”
If there's a problem with visas or passports, travelers are shuffled to a row of chairs where they wait for officers to investigate their circumstances and determine whether they are to be welcomed or sent home at the airline's expense.
Passengers wanted for crimes are flagged by customs officers before landing so that officers can meet their plane when it touches down.
A Chester, Md., man wanted on two charges of sexual assault of a minor was arrested in September by officers who met his flight from Turkey .
A prohibited taste of home
The work of the CBP officers can easily grab headlines with the right narcotics seizure or criminal arrest. But an agricultural inspector's job well done doesn't always occur in the spotlight — nor does it always smell good.
One recent evening, CBP Officer Agnes Smith bravely stuck her face directly into a plastic bag fresh off a flight from China. It turned out to be shredded squid that hadn't been refrigerated for hours.
At a nearby table, fellow Officer Jennifer Jones , a K-9 handler, stood over a suitcase overflowing with random packages of meat and one zippered plastic bag with a chunky red liquid inside.
On the other side of the luggage, a short, plump woman had begun to shed crocodile tears. She mumbled quietly, sweat beading on her forehead, as she watched Officer Jones remove much of the suitcase's meaty contents and set them aside for incineration.
“There's no one else you can blame for this,” Officer Jones said matter-of-factly. “Your friend's mom is not the one who has the bag. It's your bag.”
The bag was sniffed out by Officer Jones ‘ partner, Hudson, a 6-year-old beagle trained to find hidden fruits and meats. The woman was making her way through the arrivals gate just off a flight from Russia.
While some of the flora and fauna that pass through the checkpoint might seem odd traveling fare, many passengers are hoping to bring a “taste of home” with them, Officer Whittaker said.
Sometimes, that taste of home should stay there.
The officers at the agriculture checkpoint refer to a “hot sheet” sent from the assistant port director detailing the list of prohibited foods that must be confiscated and destroyed.
Fresh guavas from Africa might seem like tasty souvenirs, Officer Bandara Ratnayake explained, but the fruit flies that have laid eggs inside are a threat to American crops that have no immunity. The same goes for tree bark, flowers, rice and mangoes, all of which can house pesky insects.
A rotation of meats, plants and seeds ends up on the hot sheet, so the officers must stay informed of potential threats and what they look like. The specialists train for 10 weeks, and they also are required to have at least a bachelor's degree in one of the biological sciences, such as entomology — the study of insects — or botany.
You are what you pack
Hot sheets can change on a daily basis, and officers have some discretion about handing out fines to unknowing passengers. The endangered-species list, however, is much more ironclad.
Items made from these species are often exotic and beautiful, but anyone who attempts to bring them across the American border faces a hefty fine, according to Kelly French, an inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office at Dulles.
Depending on the infraction, a person could face a fine ranging from $350 to $100,000, or several years behind bars.
Officers at Dulles have recovered a multitude of items, including a full leopard pelt complete with claws, genuine tortoise-shell hair clips and a belt made of elephant hide.
While confiscated food items are destroyed at the end of the day, endangered-species items are recorded separately from the usual seizures at the agricultural checkpoint and kept as evidence.
“I've already made seizures of a charred monkey, and there's been a bunch of endangered reptiles,” said Anthony Quigley, 32, who's been working as a Dulles CBP officer for less than a year. “It looked like ‘Jurassic Park.' “
Officer Jones , 41, remembered finding a goat's head and skin in a bag.
“It was rotten, maggoty,” she said. “It looked like a person skinned the goat, threw it in a bag, and left.”
Last year, the agricultural specialists at Dulles inspected nearly 140,000 passengers and their luggage, enough to fill more than 300 Boeing 747 airplanes.
About 9 tons of plant products and nearly 6 tons of animal products were seized.
The expert inspectors stopped 110 creepy crawlers from entering the country and disinfected just under 2,500 shoes. The total dollar amount of civil penalties was $41,675.
“I like to say we're part law enforcement, part psychologist and part sociologist,” supervisor Downing said. “We might have a language barrier, but we still have a job to do.”
American envoy to Israel: U.S. ready to strike Iran
by Amy Teibel
JERUSALEM (AP) — The United States has plans in place to attack Iran if necessary to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Washington's envoy to Israel said, days ahead of a crucial round of nuclear talks with Tehran.
Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro 's message resonated Thursday far beyond the closed forum in which it was made: Iran should not test Washington's resolve to act on its promise to strike if diplomacy and sanctions fail to pressure Tehran to abandon its disputed nuclear program.
Mr. Shapiro told the Israel Bar Association the U.S. hopes it will not have to resort to military force.
“But that doesn't mean that option is not fully available. Not just available, but it's ready,” he said. “The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it's ready.”
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. The U.S. and Israel suspect Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, but differences have emerged in how to persuade Tehran to curb its program.
Washington says diplomacy and economic sanctions must be given a chance to run its course, and the U.S. is taking the lead in the ongoing talks between six global powers and Iran .
Israel , while saying it would prefer a diplomatic solution, has expressed skepticism about these talks and says time is running out for military action to be effective.
President Obama has assured Israel that the U.S. is prepared to take military action if necessary, and it is standard procedure for armies to draw up plans for a broad range of possible scenarios. But Mr. Shapiro 's comments were the most explicit sign yet that preparations have been stepped up.
In his speech, Mr. Shapiro acknowledged that the clock is ticking.
“We do believe there is time. Some time, not an unlimited amount of time,” Mr. Shapiro said. “But at a certain point, we may have to make a judgment that the diplomacy will not work.”
The U.S. envoy spoke on Tuesday. The Associated Press obtained a recording of his remarks on Thursday.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany are gearing up for a May 23 meeting with Iran in Baghdad. Shortly after the meeting, the U.N. atomic agency is to release its latest report card on Iran ‘s nuclear efforts.
In Tehran on Thursday, top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili warned against Western pressure at next week's talks, which are a follow-up to negotiations in Istanbul last month that all sides praised as positive.
“Cooperation is what we can talk about in Baghdad,” Mr. Jalili said in comments broadcast on Iranian state TV.
“Some say time is running out for the talks,” he added. “I say time for the (West's) pressure strategy is running out.”
Four rounds of U.N. sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to halt its uranium enrichment, a process that has civilian uses but is also key to bomb-making. But recent U.S. and European measures, including an oil embargo and financial and banking sanctions, have bludgeoned Iran ‘s economy by curtailing its ability to carry on economic transactions with the international community.
Israel says a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran would threaten the Jewish state's survival, and it has waged a fierce diplomatic campaign against the Iranian nuclear program for years. Israel cites Iranian calls for Israel ‘s destruction, Iran ‘s arsenal of missiles and its support for anti- Israel militant groups.
Senior officials have expressed skepticism about the sanctions' effectiveness and believe Tehran is using the talks to stall the international community as Iran moves ever closer to a nuclear bomb.
The United States has urged Israel to refrain from attacking, at least at this point. Tough new economic sanctions are to go into effect over the summer, and American officials fear an Israeli strike could set off a regional war without significantly setting back the Iranian program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the negotiations will fail unless Iran agrees to halt all uranium enrichment, ship its current stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country and dismantle an underground enrichment facility near the city of Qom.
Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, who until a few days ago commanded Israel ‘s air force, said in a Jerusalem Post interview Thursday that the air force is prepared for any scenario, including striking Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israel ‘s military chief told the Associated Press last month that other countries as well as Israel have readied their armed forces for a potential strike against Iran ‘s nuclear sites.
Zimmerman's account of killing corroborated
Pot found in Trayvon's system
by Combined dispatches
ORLANDO, Fla. — Medical and autopsy reports released Thursday corroborate George Zimmerman 's account that he shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after the teenager attacked him.
As part of a massive release of evidence by the prosecution, an autopsy report on Trayvon found evidence of marijuana in his system, as Mr. Zimmerman told police he suspected. At the time of the shooting, Trayvon , 17, had been suspended from Miami-Dade County schools because traces of marijuana were found in a plastic baggie in his book bag.
The autopsy says medical examiners found THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, when they tested Trayvon 's blood and urine.
The package of documents, photos and video was turned over by prosecutors to defense attorneys days before it was released to the media.
Also in the package is a photo of Mr. Zimmerman with a bloody nose taken the night of the shooting, while a paramedic report says Mr. Zimmerman had a 1-inch laceration on his head and forehead abrasion.
“Bleeding tenderness to his nose, and a small laceration to the back of his head. All injuries have minor bleeding,” paramedic Michael Brandy wrote about Mr. Zimmerman 's injuries in the report.
Whether Mr. Zimmerman was injured in the Feb. 26 altercation with Trayvon has been a key question. Mr. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense and said he only fired because the teenager attacked him, though liberal and black activists made a national cause out of the case as an example of racism.
Mr. Zimmerman told a police officer that he did not have any other bruises or cuts but his back hurt, according to a police report.
Mr. Zimmerman is awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge. He has pleaded not guilty.
New witness accounts also emerged Thursday, corroborating the account Mr. Zimmerman has given since the night of the shooting.
A witness, whose name is redacted, told investigators he saw “a black male, wearing a dark colored hoodie,” on top of a white or Hispanic male who was yelling for help.
The witness, who was looking out the sliding glass door at his home about 30 feet away, said he saw the black male throwing punches “MMA [mixed martial arts] style.”
He said he told the fighters he was calling the police, and that he heard a shot as he was making the call. He looked outside and saw the person who had been on top laid out on the grass as if he had been shot. He said the other fighter was standing on the sidewalk, talking to another person with a flashlight.
Also included in the evidence release was an investigator's recommendation to prosecutors that Mr. Zimmerman be arrested on manslaughter charges. The investigator, who was on the scene after the shooting, wrote March 13 that the confrontation should have been avoided.
Investigator Christopher Serino told prosecutors that the fight could have been avoided if Mr. Zimmerman had remained in his vehicle and awaited the arrival of law enforcement. He said Mr. Zimmerman , after leaving his vehicle, could have identified himself to Trayvon as a concerned citizen and talked to him instead of confronting him.
A separate report written by Mr. Serino at the crime scene says Trayvon had $40.15, Skittles candy, a red lighter, headphones and a photo pin in his pocket. He had been shot once in the chest and was pronounced dead at the scene.