Customs turns up heat on IT projects

In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Customs Service has intensified its call for enough funding to get its $1.3 billion modernization program completed years earlier than previously planned and to roll out an array of devices to search for chemical and nuclear weapons.

Customs' Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), a Web-based system to process import data, "is more important now than ever before," said Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs Modernization Office, speaking at a trade industry symposium the service held Nov. 27 in Washington, D.C. "We want to see ACE happen in four years because we don't want to deploy something that's going to be obsolete by the time it's introduced."

Congress recently approved $300 million for ACE in fiscal 2002 — $170 million more than President Bush had requested for the program. There are concerns, however, about whether Congress will continue to provide that level of funding each year for the system, which will replace Customs' 17-year-old Automated Commercial System.

Under the administration's original funding request, it would have taken as long as seven years to develop ACE, which Customs awarded in April to a team led by IBM Global Services Inc. Since the terrorist attacks, however, Customs officials have looked at a shorter timeframe. Last month, Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner formally set a goal for completing the development and installation of ACE within four years.

Industry groups, which have lobbied Congress for increased ACE funding, are delighted with the new goal. "Realistically, [four years] is the shortest time frame possible," said Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America. "If you extend the program past four years, you lose efficiencies and the technologies need to be refreshed."

Although ACE is designed to track cargo, not people, it will play a crucial security role by providing information on the movement of materials that could be used in terrorist acts, Armstrong and other Customs officials said at the conference.

In the meantime, Customs is using every technological device it has to help in the effort to stop the movement of "terrorists, their weapons and their money," said John Pennella, executive director of the service's applied technology division.

A pilot program to put laptop computers with wireless Internet access in the hands of field officers at airports, seaports and land border crossings recently was completed, Pennella said.

Other technological tools being used to track down contraband include radiation detectors, particle "sniffers," mobile gamma ray and X-ray machines and a device called "The Buster," which detects contraband items by sensing changes in the density of the materials in which they are hidden.

Because Customs' workforce hasn't grown significantly in more than two decades, "technology is basically a force-multiplier for us," said S.W. "Woody" Hall Jr., assistant commissioner of Customs' Office of Information and Technology.

After the September attacks, Customs officers also began intensive training in recognizing both individual weapons of mass destruction and the precursor chemicals and biological materials that are used to make them, said Ira Reese, acting executive director of Laboratories and Scientific Services, Customs' forensic division.

"We took the anti- terrorism portion out of our training program and expanded it. Now we're giving [the officers] some real heavy-duty information," he said.

Customs has also moved some of its mobile labs to border checkpoints so that shipments of chemicals and biological materials can be sampled and analyzed on the spot, before they cross into the United States.

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Customs' technological tools

Technologies the U.S. Customs Service currently uses to prevent the movement of contraband include:

* Wireless-enabled laptop computers, which give field officers real-time access to Customs databases.

* "Sniffer" technology, which can detect trace particles of dangerous chemicals.

* Gamma ray and X-ray technologies.

* "Radiation pagers," which inspectors wear and which sound when nuclear radiation is present.

* "The Buster," which detects changes in the density of materials — such as truck tires — in which contraband is hidden.

Technologies that Customs plans to implement in the near future include:

* Non-intrusive inspection systems that can look inside entire sea containers and shipping pallets.

* Isotope identification systems, which can detect radiological materials within containers.

* Acoustic inspection systems, which can identify chemical weapons and precursor chemicals inside fluid-filled containers.

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