Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Monday named John Sanders as the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, filling a week-old vacancy created when President Donald Trump put McAleenan in charge of DHS after firing Kirstjen Nielsen.

Sanders had been chief operating officer of CBP since last July, filling a new position created by McAleenan, who was sworn in as CBP’s chief in March 2018 to help run the day to day management of the agency.

Acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders. Photo: CBP

Sanders is a former industry executive with strong credentials in the technology arena. He co-founded Reveal Imaging Technology, a developer and manufacturer of systems used by the Transportation Security Administration at small and medium-size airports to automatically screen checked bags for explosives. Reveal was acquired by Leidos [LDOS]. He also served as TSA’s chief technology officer between 2012 and 2014.

Before joining CBP, Sanders ran an intelligence consulting firm Pramantha Solutions for three years and also served on the boards of American Science and Engineering, a security and detection company now owned by OSI Systems’ [OSIS] Rapiscan Systems division, and Evolv Technology, a privately owned company that makes a threat detection technology to passively screen for concealed threats on people in high-throughput traffic areas.

“John Sanders has proven instrumental to advancing CBP’s mission and organizational priorities across the agency,” McAleenan said in a statement. “In addition to bringing greater focus on the agency’s operational requirements, he has provided strategic direction and oversight to critical enterprise services and operations support functions across the agency.”

In March, at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Sanders said during a keynote address that he has five priorities as COO. First is supporting the front line operators, second is hiring, information technology modernization is third, fourth is making greater use of data analytics, and fifth is innovation.

Sanders said he is a “scientist by training.” He has Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Physics from the Univ. of California, San Diego and San Diego State Univ.-California State Univ. respectively.

Sanders said hiring is the top priority, with a goal to bring on employees faster. He noted that five years ago it took an average of 400 days to hire someone and by the end of fiscal year 2018 the average declined to 270 days. He also pointed out that in FY ’18, the agency hired more CBP officers, who work at ports of entry, and Border Patrol agents, who work between ports of entry, than left the agency.

CBP “has to do better” still, and is using a new Fast Track program to hire employees within 120 days.

In the area of innovation, Sanders said CBP is already doing well. The agency is taking advantage of its partnerships with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, particularly the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit, and In-Q-Tel, the non-profit strategic investment company that serves the intelligence and defense communities, he said.

In FY ’18 the agency did more than 20 deals that had the backing of operational components, Sanders said, highlighting that one activity went from an idea on an envelope to deployed systems in less than a year. The technology was developed with sustained feedback from front line officers, he said.

Sanders said CBP is using new rapid acquisition authorities from Section 880 of the National Defense Authorization Act to acquire tethered small unmanned aircraft systems. CBP is also partnered with DHS S&T on a $1.5 million challenge to find non-traditional ways and technologies to detect opioids being smuggled into the U.S.

CBP generates enormous amounts of data that can be better mined for operational purposes, Sanders told attendees.

“Data analytics … It’s huge. It’s an area we are getting ready to make a very large investment in … and we are going to continue to make additional investments in that area,” Sanders said.

Another area under the IT modernization umbrella is better sharing of information among CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Departments of Health and Human Services, and State so there is a “single window” for data to improve the processing of illegal immigrants that have been apprehended, Sanders said.