I’m surprised not to have seen reporting in the mainstream or at least security-oriented media about a significant leadership change at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The long-time No. 2 man at ICE, John Clark, recently retired (and took a senior position as VP of security for Pfizer) and was succeeded by John Torres, a very respected agent who has held a number of leadership positions at ICE. The change is more important than individuals only; it represents a significant evolution for ICE as a cohesive and maturing law enforcement agency.

Clark was a top agent in the former US Customs, having served as the special agent in charge in Miami before being recruited to ICE headquarters. When ICE was first stood up within the Department of Homeland Security, there were significant cultural challenges to overcome. The agency merged the criminal investigative resources of the former Customs with the criminal investigative resources of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) into one investigative unit with broadly expanded powers. Previously, Customs had jurisdiction over a number of criminal areas, including smuggling and financial crime, and INS had jurisdiction over immigration-related crime, such as human smuggling operations. And never did the twain meet, except through the task-force route. (Customs was part of the Treasury Department while INS was housed in DOJ.) At ICE, these jurisdictions were merged, creating the second largest federal investigations force after the FBI.

However, the merger wasn’t easy. Indeed, I would argue that the creation of ICE was the most challenging of all the agencies that comprise DHS. Unlike some agencies, such as the Secret Service which simply transferred from Department — Treasury — to another, ICE was built upon fragments of various agencies to create an entirely new law enforcement organization with a new mission. Not only did the criminal investigations resources of Customs and INS become part of ICE; so did the Federal Protective Service, INS’s Office of Detention and Removal and even, for a time, the Federal Air Marshal Service.

Within ICE’s Office of Investigation, which housed the majority of the agency’s 1811 criminal investigators, tensions existed between Customs investigators and INS investigators. There were a number of reasons for such tensions, not least among them being that INS criminal investigators were on a lower pay scale than Customs investigators. (This challenge was eventually corrected at ICE.) There were also the inevitable tensions between agents with long histories at two formerly separate law enforcement agencies being asked to serve together as one. I can’t emphasize enough the chasm that initially existed between these two cultures.

Two of the most important individuals in helping to bridge that chasm were John Clark, the respected agent from Customs, and John Torres, the respected agent from INS.

As head of ICE’s Office of Investigations, Clark relied heavily on Torres in his efforts to build a solid investigative foundation with its own identity that was neither Customs nor INS but pursued an utterly new¬† law enforcement mission.

When Clark was eventually promoted to Deputy at ICE, he was replaced as head of Investigations by another respected agent, Marcy Forman. Forman was also a former Customs agent, with a particular expertise in financial crimes. During a time when senior officials still thought of themselves as Customs or INS, a precedent appeared to be in the making that Customs agents were emerging as the go-to pool for top leadership positions. Indeed, when Clark announced his retirement, there was significant speculation that Forman would replace him as Deputy.

Torres’ selection as Deputy isn’t a reflection on Forman. (Although some have suggested that Forman could be too blunt for the diplomatic and political skills needed for the Deputy position, the politics is left to the Assistant Secretary while the Deputy manages the operational elements of the agency.)

Torres’ selection is a reflection on Torres — an excellent criminal investigator who was involved in a number of major terror investigations throughout his career and who held a diverse number of leadership posts at ICE that will help the agency continue the effort to eliminate the old “Customs-INS” divide and create a truly unique force dedicated to a criminal and terrorist focus that is neither Customs nor INS but Homeland Security.

Torres selection as Deputy strikes me as not simply a changing of the guard among individual leaders at ICE but a changing of the guard in the evolution and maturity of the agency. It is another step away from the old divisions and another step toward the creation of one of the nation’s premier crime- and terror-fighting agencies.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More