Picking up the pace
DHS agencies belatedly collaborate on air cargo security.
By Eric Kulisch
U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration in the past year have taken big strides to use their personnel and technology in a more collaborative way for aviation security and other missions.
The effort is driven by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's desire to make Department of Homeland Security components function as one, but also by new CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin's willingness to break down traditional barriers between the agencies.
The partnership picked up pace following the failed Christmas Day 2009 attack on a Northwest Airlines jet bound for Detroit by a young Nigerian man packing plastic explosives in his underwear.
Now, following the late October plot to smuggle bombs on U.S.-bound freighters, the two agencies say they have intensified their working relationship on air cargo security.
CBP and TSA recently established a senior guidance team to better integrate their strategies, and signed a memorandum of understanding regarding enhanced border security collaboration, Bersin and TSA Administrator John Pistole told a Senate panel on Nov. 16.
The senior guidance team is modeled on similar interagency leadership meetings regularized four years ago between CBP and the Coast Guard.
The idea behind the high-level discussion groups is to give policy guidance and direction, coordinate missions in the field and reduce redundancies.
Differences between TSA and CBP have hindered cooperation on aviation security, something Bersin insists he is determined to change.
'I can't stand turf battles. I didn't stand them when I was last in government and now I have some way to be able to affect them,' he said in an interview with American Shipper.
Bersin served during the Clinton administration as the Justice Department's southwest border czar in charge of improving coordination among federal law enforcement agencies, as well as ties with state and local authorities along the border with Mexico. He held a similar job in President Obama's DHS for a year before assuming his current post last spring. He also served a stint as California's secretary of education and spent eight years as superintendent of the San Diego school district.
'You know, I'm a big believer in single government. That's why we had that import safety conference (in October with 10 agency chiefs or deputies) and why TSA and CBP have really worked together in an extraordinary way on this ' not only the passenger problem, but also in the current problem and challenge we face on cargo security,' Bersin said.
The senior guidance team first met in October and again on Nov. 22.
Bersin said sister agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement has recently been included in the Coast Guard senior guidance team to help coordinate border strategy. CBP has also established a senior-level relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration to discuss common interests in national airspace authorization for CBP's unmanned aerial vehicles that patrol the northern and southern borders.
'The senior guidance team is a good method for senior leadership to reach understandings and agreements on policy questions. And it becomes a signpost for staff work to follow,' he said.
Five years ago then-Commissioner Robert Bonner complained that agency infighting prevented CBP from helping TSA develop cargo security programs for air transport.
Bonner said his agency offered DHS and TSA its expertise to model an air cargo security regime on CBP's program for securing cargo against terrorist infiltration in the ocean environment, including an air version of the Container Security Initiative, but was rebuffed.
In their Senate testimony, Bersin and Pistole said their agencies have worked closely since June 2009 to leverage Customs' Automated Targeting System for helping TSA with its explosives-detection mission. A joint working group repeatedly met to familiarize TSA with the data CBP already gets, how the ATS works, and how rules could be designed within the system to address TSA concerns, according to DHS officials.
In truth, talk about TSA piggybacking on Customs for international air cargo security while it focuses on the security of the aircraft, facilities and personnel has been going on for several years without much action until now, in part because TSA has been skeptical of CBP's approach.
Douglas Brittin, the TSA's general manager for air cargo, said last summer that TSA would need to get data much sooner than CBP collects air manifest data. After the recent bomb threat involving FedEx and UPS planes, there is new impetus to collect advance data from air carriers.
In the past, discussions centered on plugging CBP's international shipment data into a new dedicated TSA system. But now officials appear more focused on adapting a few of the Customs targeting rules to meet TSA's needs in an effort to husband resources by taking advantage of each other's capabilities.
Bersin said the two agencies are trying, as best possible, to align TSA's Certified Cargo Screening Program for approving specific facilities to pre-screen cargo on their own, and CBP's Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which gives importers more latitude to enter shipments into the country if they have strong supply chain security practices in place. One area under consideration for almost two years is mutual recognition of companies that have passed a security review for C-TPAT or CCSP, although the former program applies to an entire company while the latter gives screening rights to individual freight facilities.
Meanwhile, Bersin said the two agencies 'are looking at the strategic placement of CBP and/or TSA and/or cross-designated personnel that could help multiply the effectiveness of our efforts abroad.'
Pistole testified that TSA has more than 100 inspectors stationed overseas and wants to increase that number. The security officers serve mostly as liaisons to foreign governments to help share information and guidance on building security programs.
The CBP chief said in the interview that the Container Security Initiative on the ocean side could serve as a rough model for stationing DHS personnel at key foreign airports to help identify suspicious cargo and make requests of local counterparts to inspect it.
'We should be looking at the same techniques for maritime. We may want to customize it given the nature of the trade. But the general process in maritime gives us good guidance' on how to proceed, he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The third way to get human resources in key cargo hubs is to provide training and assistance that builds the capacity of foreign law enforcement authorities to provide aviation security and be the de facto U.S. agent on the ground, Jayson Ahern, one year removed from being CBP's acting commissioner, said in an interview.
DHS needs to quickly figure out a way, including the possible use of private third parties, to station personnel overseas to interact with host governments, said Ahern, now a principal at The Chertoff Group.