DHS tests portal for tracking cargo

In an effort to keep deadly material out of the country, the Homeland Security Department has launched a Web portal that shippers will use to disclose what they are importing before they even dock at a U.S. port.

The goal is to find out what is coming into the country as early as possible, officials said.

The portal will be tested by 41 companies. It is part of the former Customs Service modernization program known as the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE). Although the modernization was planned long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it has become an important tool in policing the goods and materials that enter the United States.

The portal includes a log of significant activity and other capabilities that will make it easier for customs officials to know "what's coming and when it's coming," said Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection's Modernization Office.

"This lays out a foundation for ACE over the long run, and it's the first time we've opened up our systems so that the trading public can come in and look at their own data and interact with us in real time," Armstrong said.

The portal will allow shipping companies to file manifests electronically and update them around the clock so inspectors always have the most recent information on cargo headed for U.S. ports.

U.S. officials concede that they cannot inspect 100 percent of the container cargos coming into the country. However, they say the additional data will allow them to more precisely target their inspections. DHS officials will decide in September whether the portal will become fully operational or if the pilot will be extended, Armstrong said. Meanwhile, the 41 companies will train in using the portal.

The portal is a part of the DHS philosophy of extending security beyond U.S. borders and ensuring that millions of cargo containers are not used to smuggle weapons of mass destruction or other deadly material into the country.

"If you are going to find a weapon of mass destruction, it's better to find it before it is sitting in a port in the United States," said George Weise, a former commissioner of the Customs Service who is now vice president of global trade compliance at Vastera Inc., a global technology solutions company that handles compliance issues.

The portal is also intended to reduce the reporting burden for the trade community, which has been faced with mounds of paperwork and filing requirements to comply with customs new regulations.

In the past, the only way importers could access their information was to keep it handy in a file cabinet or have a customs broker keep it for them, according to Kevin Smith, customs director for General Motors Corp., the largest U.S. importer whose goods coming into the United States include raw materials, parts and components for vehicles manufactured by the giant automaker.

"With the account portal, you will be able to look at data electronically, and customs [officials] will be looking at the same data," he said.

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