SAN DIEGO (AP) — An FBI veteran was named Monday to head the U.S. Border Patrol, a departure from the historical practice of picking someone who has risen through the ranks.
Mark Morgan, who briefly led the internal affairs department at the Border Patrol's parent agency, will oversee a multibillion-dollar annual budget at the agency in the crosshairs of the national debate about border security and immigration.
His selection doesn't reflect lack of confidence in the Border Patrol's leadership or performance, said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. He said nearly all federal law enforcement agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Drug Enforcement Administration, had outsiders take over at one time.
"In the case of the Border Patrol, the current leadership across the top, from headquarters to the field, consists of the finest group of men and women that I have worked with in my more than 40 years in law enforcement," Kerlikowske wrote in a memo to staff.
Morgan, 50, is no stranger to the Border Patrol. In 2014, the FBI loaned him to Customs and Border Protection to serve as acting assistant commissioner for internal affairs. He oversaw an extensive review of complaints of excessive use of force and employee misconduct.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents 18,000 agents, said it was disappointed the commissioner passed over several highly qualified internal candidates, ending what it called a 92-year tradition of choosing a leader from within that dates back to the agency's creation.
"The Border Patrol has a unique mission that is reflected in its culture and we realize it will be difficult for an outsider to quickly gain the trust and respect of his subordinates," the union said. "We hope that Chief Morgan will quickly overcome this hurdle."
Advocacy groups that have criticized the Border Patrol and its parent agency over use-of-force practices were generally positive on the appointment but said Morgan had work cut out for him.
During his 2014 stint at Customs and Border Protection, Morgan "acted with independence and integrity that promise to serve the agency well in his new role," said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union Washington legislative office.
Morgan's challenge will be to "foster trust in border communities still suffering painful memories of an era when Border Patrol imposed no accountability for numerous abuses," Rickerd said.
Morgan is currently an assistant FBI chief who leads the training division. He joined the FBI as an agent in Los Angeles in 1996 and has held various positions, including head of its El Paso, Texas, office.
"Mark's outstanding investigative work and leadership have been an incredible asset to the FBI, and he will be missed," FBI Director James Comey said.
Morgan replaces Michael Fisher, who retired in 2015 after five years on the job. Ronald Vitiello, who was deputy chief under Fisher, has been serving as interim chief. Morgan's appointment is not subject to congressional approval.
The appointment may be one of the last significant acts by Kerlikowske as commissioner of the nation's largest law enforcement agency. Commissioners are typically replaced when presidential administrations change.
The former Seattle police chief said he considered applicants from within and outside the Border Patrol.