A year ago, Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and other officials presided at ceremonies in three cities where employees received their first Department of Homeland Security law enforcement badges.

Like much of the rest of the department, Customs and Border Protection is a product of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The former customs, immigration and agriculture inspectors and canine enforcement officers were merged to become "one face at the border," in the hopes of better deterring terrorist threats.

"The commissioner sees one face at the border as the process for realizing our merger as an agency. It is not a training initiative; it is not an administrative initiative. It is the vision of what we are going to end up being," said Nicolle Sciara, director of policy and planning at CBP.

If CBP succeeds, "one face" will show that government agencies can undertake ambitious, large-scale initiatives to remake their workforces, reinvigorate training programs and, most important, clearly communicate priorities to employees posted across the nation and abroad.

Although CBP appears as one of 29 boxes on the Homeland Security organizational chart, it is one of the most important. With 41,000 employees, CBP can lay claim to being the nation's guardian, in control of 317 ports of entry for travelers and cargo. In addition to the CBP officer corps, the agency includes the Border Patrol, which watches for people who avoid entry stations and cross the border illegally.

Although CBP has taken big steps toward creating "one face," a recently released report from the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute points out that the agency faces numerous challenges.

The report's author, Deborah Waller Meyers, conducted more than 80 interviews during field visits to border communities during the summer and fall of 2004. She shared her findings with CBP and, in her report, acknowledged that they are a snapshot of what was occurring at the time.

Meyers found that the merger produced some advantages, such as putting one official in charge at each port of entry and increasing clarity about firearms, the use of force and personal searches of suspects. She found that staffing had increased along the nation's borders and that more attention was being paid to technology.

She also turned up complaints that CBP officers were at risk of becoming jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Her interviews showed widespread concern about a lack of immigration expertise in the agency and how legacy customs officials have put their imprint on CBP management.

Meyers also detected "fear and uncertainty" inside CBP, she wrote in her report, titled "One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan." She attributed some of the concerns to perceptions that CBP has adopted stricter work rules and to attempts to discourage employees from talking to outsiders about the agency.

At CBP headquarters, Sciara stressed that the workforce merger has unified employees in their focus on national security threats in ways that were not possible before.

Although CBP officers share law enforcement responsibilities, many have retained or developed areas of expertise, she said. Agricultural specialists still keep pests out of the country. Other specialists focus on counterterrorism, passenger analysis, contraband, intellectual property rights and fraudulent documents, she said.

As for a culture of fear inside the agency, Sciara said it is important to remember that special care must be taken with sensitive law-enforcement information and that disclosures to outsiders can be inappropriate or illegal. "If you think your port director is missing something or doing something incorrectly . . . there are ways to raise those things within the agency, even on an anonymous basis," she said.

The advantages of "one face" more than offset the pains that go with mergers, Sciara suggested. The merger, she said, has produced "dynamic change and action" that allows CBP to tell every officer each day "what the threat matrix is . . . so that targeting and questioning are focused on that threat."

She added, "We do see a lot of national security benefits to this."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com