Editor's note: This is part of a Security Clearance series "Case Files," which profiles members of the national security and intelligence community.
Mike Fisher was a law school intern in the late 1980s, sifting through files in the basement of the Crawford County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney's Office. Within the pages of those legal briefs lived the adventures of other people.
"I was reading case files and preparing briefs and I saw all this neat cop stuff that people were doing out there and I just decided at that point it was something that I didn't want to be writing about. I wanted to actually do it," said Fisher.
He sent his application to the FBI, but as he recalls, it was only interested in hiring Chinese linguists and accounting majors, so he took the advice of one of the FBI agents he met and blanketed other federal agencies with his resume.
"One of the first brochures I got back was a small fold-out with the Border Patrol. It showed guys on horseback and ATVs," Fisher recalls. "Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was so sick of shoveling snow and scraping ice and the farthest West I had been prior to that was Cleveland, Ohio."
So he signed up and that's how he ended up in Douglas, Arizona. He was about 23, right out of college, and happy to be earning $414 a month to patrol his portion of the Southwest border.
"I've been that guy in the ditch in the middle of the night." says Fisher, now the chief of the Border Patrol, sitting in his office in Washington, adding "There probably isn't an agent here who didn't have that, 'I thought I was gonna die' moment."
Fisher is intense as he recounts being in a vehicle, alone, tracking a group of people he suspected of illegally crossing. Radio communication was poor back then, and he knew that could be a potential problem if he ever needed to call for backup. He grabbed his flashlight, got out of his vehicle and listened to the group that was just in front of him, or were they just behind? It was dark, and he was alone, with a decision to make.
"I would be lying if I said running back to my vehicle didn't cross my mind," admits Fisher. "Nobody really tells you this in training, but especially at night when the sound carries, the best thing to do is take a knee and just listen, 'cause you can't see anything, there is no sense of awareness." Fisher thought for sure that someone in the group would hear the sound of his heart pounding, because from where he was crouched down, it was so loud it was drowning everything else out.
He says he paused for about 10 seconds, wondering if he'd made the right career choice, and then charged the group, yelling in the best Spanish he could, ordering them to stop. They didn't, and he pursued.
"I ran after the first person that I thought I had the best opportunity to grab," recalls Fisher.
The guy was bigger than Fisher.
"I got down into a wash, a dry stream bed, and he actually stopped and I thought he was getting tired, and he turns around like he's gonna get handcuffed." said Fisher, who had holstered his weapon and was going for his handcuffs. But it turns out the guy didn't want to get handcuffed, and as Fisher recounts it, the suspect charged him instead, knocking him to the ground and wrapping the cord from his own walkie-talkie around his neck.
"He's hitting me and in between, he's reaching for my weapon," says Fisher. "So its at that point in the middle of nowhere at the bottom of a wash, there's a lot of things you think about. I arrested him. Then, a few months later it happened again, and then it became just another one."
Today, Fisher's responsibilities are far greater, and his tussles occur mostly in political circles. There have been struggles with Congress over defining success along the border. The flow of immigrants is still an issue. Others are human smuggling, drug smuggling, and now, the threat of terrorists breaching the border. The terrorist threat today ranges from the smuggling of bomb-making equipment to nuclear material to the drugs that are sold for proceeds that could benefit terrorist organizations. Separating out those threats, according to Fisher, is nearly impossible, and it's the main reason why the lingo, and the border protection role, is shifting.
"We talk about an all threats environment," Fisher explains. "We look at those things that are high probability, low impact, things like potentially illegal immigration. I can tell you right now in certain locations, there will be people as we speak, who are coming in between the ports of entry that are looking for a better life for themselves and their families, so that's high probability, low impact in terms of a national security threat. I can also tell you that on the other end of that extreme, when you look at low probability, high impact, that's the potential terrorism."
His biggest challenge today is figuring out how Customs and Border Protection should gather and share information, and still be able to respond quickly to any threat. Today, Customs and Border Protection has nine unmanned aerial systems, better known as Predators, with a 10th due for delivery this year. Investing in new technology and picking those areas along the border to survey are the challenges ahead. Making the distinction between illegal immigrants and potential terrorist plotters is now the main focus of the job. While both are serious issues, one is more likely to result in the death of Americans.
Twenty years ago, actor Jack Nicholson, playing Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessup in the movie "A Few Good Men," belted out the line that would become cult in military and law enforcement circles:
"Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?"
Fisher smiles when he remembers the scene, one he admits watching a hundred times. Today, two decades later, the threat may have changed, but the enemy is still coming.