Fall/ Winter 2020
Investigating the Truth
Theresa Nibblett, Class of 1984, had a long history of working as a special agent for the U.S. Customs Investigations Office. Her experience as a special agent was rewarding, exciting and sometimes dangerous. Whether she was along the southwestern border of Arizona conducting surveillance in the desert or working in an investigative field office in Washington D.C., Nibblett was always investigating the truth.
To Nibblett, nothing else mattered but the facts. Her knack for investigating and finding the truth led her to be selected for a Customs Assistant Attaché position in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1999. While she was there looking into the use of forced labor, she was tasked with investigating allegations made by a CBS “60 Minutes II” segment.
The “60 Minutes II” story began with the health concern of young people in the U.S. smoking flavored cigarettes called bidi. Then, it took a turn. The show claimed that children in India were used to hand roll bidis. For decades, it has been illegal to import goods into the U.S. made by forced labor. Considerable media attention focused on bidi when this “60 Minutes II” aired, and Nibblett was sent o India to further investigate.
“We went to the villages and sat in their houses on dirt floors,” said Nibblett. From what was aired on television, Nibblett should have found children working six days a week for nine to 30 cents a day in small villages. Instead, what they found was a common practice in the “cottage industry” business. Women sat with their children voluntarily making bidi cigarettes. After visiting India three times to investigate, Nibblett concluded that there was no case.
“There’s always more to a story,” she said. “When you are taking sanction actions against companies, you cannot base it on someone’s hearsay. It has to be investigated. In some countries, you have to consider that these children only go to school until the age of 13 or 14 and are then considered adults. Since they are at home, parents have them work and help earn money.”
Nibblett also recalled a similar encounter when the U.S. Customs Service was pressured to place a ban on imports from a textile factory in Cambodia that employed 1,000 people. There were allegations of underage youth forced into labor. After investigating, Nibblett found only two young people who were underage but had documents issued by their village elders attesting to their age.
“You cannot expect other countries to share our values, or their cultures to operate the same as ours, but we can encourage it,” she said. “We can educate others on the proper use of labor. It’s not right to shut down a business by banning exports to the U.S. which will put whole villages out of work, based on hearsay or incomplete information.”
No matter what challenges were thrown her way, Nibblett enjoyed her work. “There was never a dull moment. Sometimes it was fun, other times it wasn’t, and often it was a lot of hard work, but it was a great career. I think back on all the stuff we did and all the places I have been. It was well worth it and rewarding.”
Now retired from the federal government after 37 years, Nibblett does not plan to settle down. Her acute case of the travel bug has her itching to continue exploring the world. She hopes to travel back to Asia and explore a few countries she did not get to spend much time in.