Is CustomsÆ IT system ready for advance data?
By Eric Kulisch
Commissioner Alan Bersin expressed confidence during a recent interview that Customs and Border Protection will be able to process advance air cargo data sooner than currently required.
But a former top ranking official cautioned the new demands may require an accelerated timeline for modernizing the automated systems used to crunch that data for potential threats.
'The agency needs to get more information earlier and run it through a targeting system that has robust, advanced analytics so that it becomes a decision-support tool for a trained analyst,' said Jayson Ahern, a former CBP deputy and acting commissioner who now provides security advice to various organizations as a partner in The Chertoff Group.
He said CBP needs to re-evaluate whether the schedule for deploying a new automated manifest system for air needs to be moved up the priority scale in light of the current circumstances.
The Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) is a massive information technology overhaul of CBP's legacy system that supports the agency's trade processing and security functions. ACE's development has been underway for almost a decade, but has been slowed by mismanagement and technical issues. The current system processes vessel, rail, truck and air manifests, but all the manifest systems eventually are to be upgraded and transferred over to ACE. The new system also will serve as a communication portal with the trade community and consolidate all the programs so that border officers can see data about shipments or importers on one screen.
'Is the Automated Manifest System robust enough to capture all the information the agency will need and in the time they will need it, or does the development and deployment of the new release need to be moved up sooner rather than later?' Ahern said.
An accelerated modernization schedule for air manifest may require Congress to restore some of the money that was recently cut from the ACE program, Ahern suggested. CBP's fiscal year 2011 budget cuts $75 million from ACE compared to the 2010 appropriation from Congress. The drop from $228 million to $153 million follows another $75 million funding drop the year before.
If the current system doesn't efficiently and accurately accommodate pre-departure manifest data then CBP needs to make a case for accelerating the air manifest development, Ahern said.
But Bersin said the agency plans to stick with its schedule of rolling out vessel and rail manifest functionality, followed by cargo release, before deploying the new air manifest.
'The development of protocols with regard to air cargo is a higher priority than actually getting it to the single portal,' Bersin said.
'The important priority that the trade has pointed out to us is that we actually get the cargo release part of this done. We think the trade is the better source of priorities than us deciding that because of this Yemen event we should change the priority.'
Many experts within and outside DHS say that new security-related functions added to the ACE development program after the 9/11 terror attacks contributed to the system's cost overruns and delays.
'We'll have that system (upgraded air manifest) in any event. We collect that data now with regard to advance passenger information. So we have the IT capacity to certainly receive the data. The key is whether or not it's through the ACE portal. We think we can eventually, easily incorporate that information flow into the ACE portal.
'The important thing is restoring the public's, and particularly the trade's, faith in ACE,' Bersin said.