Kevin McAleenan, 33, had been interested in counter-terrorism work since law school. He was moved by the words of a professor who taught a course on terrorists and rogue states who said it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would be hit with a Pearl Harbor-like attack from terrorists. That was 1997, when McAleenan hoped to embark on a career working for the FBI as a special agent. But a few years and a pile of educational debt later, McAleenan found himself at a private law firm, the place where he had decided he would best be able to build his skills and pay off his loans.
Then came September 11th.
Overwhelmed by the events of 9/11, McAleenan’s professional priorities immediately changed. Literally the next day, he applied to work at the FBI, working on the application into the wee hours of the morning. Within a few weeks, he was contacted by Robert Bonner, who earlier that year had been nominated by the President to serve as Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service. McAleenan’s public service mission had begun.
Bonner explained that he needed people with energy and dedication to help him stand up the Office of Anti-Terrorism, a new organization within the U.S. Customs Service, which has since become U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the Nation’s unified border security agency. Seven weeks later, McAleenan arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin his new job. Things were moving so fast that he and his fiancée changed their post-wedding plans to live in California, and she moved to D.C. with him.
McAleenan’s task was simple yet overwhelming: he needed to work on the development of a strategy focused on protecting the nation’s borders from terrorist penetration. He set out to tackle the goal by quickly developing an extensive knowledge of terrorists and their tools, and ways in which border personnel could better use their authority and improve their procedures to prevent them from entering the country. He so impressed agency officials with his leadership that he was appointed Director of the Office of Anti-Terrorism within two years.
CBP is responsible for more than 300 ports of entry in the U.S. and all of the borders between those ports of entry—covering thousands of miles. Within the agency, McAleenan has specialized in the important behind-the-scenes work that most Americans don’t even think about. He developed protocols for how CBP’s personnel respond to potential threats—tactics used by 30,000 armed law enforcement officers every single day. He helped CBP and the brand-new Department of Homeland Security establish integrated response plans, including communication and tracking of protective measures when an Orange Threat Condition is declared. He worked with CBP’s operational offices and interagency partners to improve coordination of national operations during heightened threat situations. And in 2004, when rumors of a pre-election terror attack ran rampant, he oversaw the agency’s response plan.
Not many people would take a significant pay cut, move their family hundreds of miles and accept an unpredictable work assignment in which the safety of the nation rests in their hands. But for Kevin McAleenan, there was no question.