U.S. officials emphasize quality over quantity for container inspections
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials continue to emphasize the importance of managing terrorist risk associated with inbound sea containers and other types of shipments despite repeated efforts by some in Congress to legislate higher inspection quota levels.
A maritime security bill under consideration in the Senate calls for the doubling of container inspections under certain circumstances from the current 6 percent, and some individual members of Congress have expressed support that 50 percent or more of containers be scanned or physically checked.
But Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning, rejected what he called “sound byte” solutions in favor of the department’s risk management-based philosophy centered on gathering accurate and early shipping information from commercial sources to narrow the pool of necessary inspections to just those containers that pose a high risk.
“We have to make sure legislative solutions in this area pass a reality check of sorts in terms of our ability to implement and enforce these mandates and in terms of industry’s ability to comply,” he said in an address to the American Association of Exporters and Importers this week in New York.
The recent lack of support in the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security for efforts to require visible inspections of 60 percent of cargo on commercial aircraft was a victory for those seeking to balance security and trade, he said. The proposal “would effectively have prohibited transport cargo on passenger aircraft,” he added.
Risk management principles are being used to focus resources on smaller subsets of cargo that pose a risk. The department’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection is implementing rules for advance electronic submission of shipping manifests. Every shipment automatically gets a risk score based on its country of origin, transshipment points, association with established exporters and importers, and other factors.
That type of risk analysis was lacking earlier this year when the port of Ashdod in Israel was attacked by Palestinian fighters who had hidden in an ocean container, said Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner. The container, which originated in Italy, was never screened when it came back empty from the Gaza Strip, a hotbed of Palestinian unrest against Israeli occupation.
Responding to a question following his own speech at AAEI, Bonner said the attack provided a lesson: “Target containers that come from high-risk areas.”
Israel is generally regarded as having some of the most sophisticated security practices in the world. “In this area (risk management) we are ahead of the Israelis,” he added.
A program like the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism is designed to help eliminate the majority of shipments from exam consideration by engaging traders to establish certified supply chain security programs that include their foreign suppliers in exchange for expedited clearance of goods. The idea is to quickly rule out trusted shippers and devote more attention to non-C-TPAT traders.
CBP has used economic incentives and leverage to encourage foreign governments and industry to participate in its international cargo security efforts, while touting the side benefits of security requirements, such as identifying and tracking shipments, for helping companies increase their operational efficiency and customer service.
Verdery said many smaller ports want to join the Container Security Initiative for helping screen U.S.-bound containers in order to remain competitive. Containers from non-CSI ports could be subjected to greater scrutiny and delay, and cause shippers to gravitate to ports perceived as more reliable.
“CSI is creating a business demand that is taking security seriously,” Verdery said.
The 24-hour rule for advance reporting of container contents before loading on a ship at a foreign port is another example of how a security requirement can be turned into a business advantage, said Adm. James Loy, deputy secretary for DHS. Ocean carrier “K-Line” recently reported a five-fold increase in productivity it directly attributed to the 24-hour rule, Loy told the National Cargo Security Council convention in Las Vegas this week, according to a copy of his speech.
Despite grumbling from industry quarters that C-TPAT benefits have been slow to keep pace with requirements, Bonner categorically stated during a House subcommittee hearing Thursday that C-TPAT participants receive fewer enforcement and trade compliance exams.
Robert Perez, the head of the C-TPAT program, said shipments from C-TPAT members get examined three to five times less frequently than those from non-members when it comes to checking payment of duties, following quotas and other traditional customs compliance issues. The gap is even wider for contraband enforcement and anti-terrorism exams. C-TPAT shipments tend to be examined six to eight times less than others for security purposes, he told a separate panel at the AAEI conference.
Companies may falsely perceive they are not seeing tangible benefits for a couple of reasons. The green light through customs clearance only kicks in after a company has been certified and makes it through Customs' vetting process. And Customs' overall examination rates have almost tripled since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he said.
DHS officials insisted that they want the C-TPAT program to remain incentive-based and voluntary in nature, but made clear that they will continue to raise the bar for security standards and performance measures to quantify the effectiveness of C-TPAT and other security programs. A top priority is to ramp up the validation process whereby by Customs specialists visit factories and other facilities to verify that companies are implementing security programs as promised in their initial applications.
“We have to make sure the benefits of C-TPAT are conferred only on those that live up to their C-TPAT requirements,” Verdery said. There have been instances in which Customs has suspended membership and companies have lost their privileges, Perez confirmed.
“We want to get help to those who are trying to comply and get those out of the program that are giving us lip service,” he said in response to questions.
Perez repeated that Customs wants to keep C-TPAT a voluntary program, but did not rule out a more regulatory approach in the future. “We have no interest right now in making it mandatory. We believe it’s not a one-size-fits-all program.”
A show of hands in the hall indicated that virtually all of the 300 persons in the hall want C-TPAT to remain voluntary. A second vote showed that everyone presumes that C-TPAT will eventually become mandatory, despite pronouncements to the contrary.