By Andrew Becker

Many of the thousands of new border agents hired in recent years as part of a push to block drug traffickers and other safety threats from entering the country might actually pose security risks themselves, a Homeland Security official testified today.

Speaking at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on corruption of federal law enforcement officers, James Tomsheck, the assistant commissioner for internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection, testified that drug-trafficking organizations have infiltrated the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency.

“There is a concerted effort on the part of transnational criminal organizations to infiltrate through hiring initiatives and to compromise our existing agents and officers,” he said.

Despite efforts to combat corruption, which include lie-detector tests for applicants and background checks for new hires and veteran employees, Tomsheck said he worries that the problem may be too big for his agency and others to wipe out even when they work together harmoniously.

Since 2004, more than 100 CBP agents and officers have been arrested or indicted, officials said. Tomsheck said when he took over the internal affairs office in 2006 the vast majority of corrupted employees had worked with the agency for 10 years or more, but now an increasing number of younger agents and officers have become corrupted.

CBP has expanded rapidly in recent years, nearly doubling the number of Border Patrol agents to 20,000, which has pushed its ranks to about 58,000 employees.

Tomsheck, who appeared with top officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, said that his agency has a backlog of 10,000 regularly scheduled background investigations, which could almost double by the end of the year. Nearly 100 contractors, among them retired FBI, DEA and other federal agents who conduct the checks, were recently laid off because of budget woes.

Funding shortfalls have also limited polygraph examiners to administer lie-detector tests to 10 to 15 percent of applicants, Tomsheck said, although the goal is to test all potential hires. But 60 percent of those who take the test are deemed “unsuitable” to work as Border Patrol agents or customs inspectors, Tomsheck said.

When asked if the 60 percent failure rate could apply to the other 85-90 percent of possible hires who are not tested, Tomsheck said officials had reached that conclusion. They suspect that many of those hired during the hiring push would be found not suitable to work for CBP if subjected to the test, Tomsheck said.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who called the hearing and is the chair of the subcommittee, said the percentage is “alarming.”

“We’re on very dangerous ground here with corruption inside federal law enforcement,” Pryor said.

Kevin Perkins, the assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, did not give a specific number on how pervasive the problem is, but offered the case of customs inspector Margarita Crispin as an example of how valuable a corrupt official is to traffickers.

Agents suspect that Crispin joined CBP in 2003 with the intent of working with drug smugglers. She was sentenced in 2008 to 20 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $5 million in bribes she was paid to allow thousands of pounds of marijuana to be smuggled through her inspection lane in El Paso.

Based on the amount of bribe money Perkins said he seems the problem of corruption is “significantly pervasive.” The FBI has expanded the number of its anti-corruption units, which draw from other state and federal agencies, to attack corruption, he said.

But corruption in the Homeland Security Department isn’t limited to Border Patrol agents and customs inspectors. Agents and officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which both runs immigration detention and is Homeland Security’s investigative arm, and employees of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that issues green cards and other immigration benefits, have also been corrupted.

Tom Frost, the assistant inspector general for investigations at DHS, said his office has even greater concern about the risk of corruption within CIS.

“Immigration benefits are such a valuable commodity to drug-trafficking organizations or other persons that would do us harm,” he said. “Immigration benefits are even more lasting and profound” because they allow drug traffickers to operate within the United States.

Pryor said that changes in the law might address the problem.

“These cartels in Mexico are very powerful,” he said. “We should not underestimate their ability to corrupt law enforcement authorities.”

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.