Container inspection process needs more improvement, Agencies say
The risk analysis system used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to target containers for inspection lacks sufficient checks and balances to guarantee accuracy, according to a preliminary report on container security by the General Accounting Office.
Customs could more precisely identify which shipments pose a potential terrorist threat by employing a more comprehensive approach to vulnerability and risk assessments, and subjecting results to peer review, better random inspections and other comparisons to provide a benchmark for automated targeting, a common practice associated with computer modeling, the GAO said.
Officials from the congressional watchdog agency and Department of Homeland Security auditors, testifying Tuesday at a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations at the Delaware River Port Authority office in Camden, N.J., praised Customs improving its automated approach to identifying potential terrorist threats in seaborne containers, but said they also found some problems with how the targeting system is actually implemented at the port level.
'The Customs Bureau does not have a national system for reporting and analyzing inspection statistics and the data provided to us by ports were generally not available by risk level, were not uniformly reported, were difficult to interpret and were incomplete,' the GAO said. 'In addition, CBP staff that received the national targeting training were not tested or certified to ensure that they had learned the basic skills needed to provide effective targeting.'
Customs and Border Protection last month added a module to its Automated Targeting System to enable Customs personnel to record exam activities and results apply the data to future screening efforts, said Charles Bartoldus, director of Custom's National Targeting Center. Richard Stana, the GAO official responsible for following the Department of Homeland Security, said it was too early to tell if the new program component will refine risk analysis.
The GAO said its recommendations were based on visits to six seaports, Customs data and interviews with experts in the field of terrorism, security and port operations.
U.S. Customs inspectors searching for drugs, contraband or weapons of mass destruction and other terrorist devices sometimes fail to follow standard operating procedures when physically inspecting cargo entering the country, Richard Berman, assistant inspector general for audits at the Department of Homeland Security, told the House panel.
A limited review of Customs' inspection procedures found that inspection procedures were inconsistently applied, in part because the guidelines for culling shipments for examination and how to sort through them were unclear and subject to different interpretation, Berman testified. Details of the audit, which took place at the Port of Houston, were not available because Customs officials have yet to comment on the inspector general's report. Berman said the inspector general's office has also completed a review of cargo inspection procedures at the land port of El Paso, Texas, and will visit the ports of Seattle and Blaine, Wash., in the near future.
The Office of Inspector General plans several reviews in 2004 of Customs and Border Protection programs designed to prevent terrorist access to the international supply chain, including the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Container Security Initiative.