Customs: E-filing helps port security

In the latest move to tighten security at the nation's borders, the Customs Service plans to require that every ship heading to the United States electronically transmit a list of cargo at least 24 hours before it is loaded at a foreign port.

The move is intended to help track the enormous traffic of imported goods across the seas to the United States and to ensure that contraband — including weapons of mass destruction — is not smuggled aboard ships.

In a speech Aug. 26, Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said the proposed rule, which could take effect by year's end, is part of the effort to target suspicious cargo and make it tougher for terrorists to slip their weapons into the United States.

"Good targeting depends on complete, accurate and timely information about containers being shipped — what is in it, who is shipping the goods, where it originated and so on," Bonner said in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Such information is essential to U.S. Customs' Automated Targeting System," a program initiated after Sept. 11 to scrutinize the goods arriving in more than 500 ships a day.

Sam Banks, a former acting Customs commissioner, said that 80 percent of all vessels already send their cargo lists to Customs 48 hours before arriving at a U.S. port. Tightening the rule to 24 hours before loading at a foreign port will make it harder for importers, he said, but shipping companies are likely to comply because they want to swiftly unload their cargo on arrival.

"It's to their advantage to do this, but it's going to change the dynamics," Banks said.

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