Customs presses EU on cargo plan

U.S. Customs site

The United States is committed to expanding an initiative to inspect cargo containers at foreign ports using high-tech tools, even though the European Union (EU) is balking at the plan.

In a decision March 18, the EU said the United States must negotiate with the entire union and not country-by-country as it has been doing. It was a political victory for the European Commission, which is part of the EU and had been protesting the agreements signed by U.S. officials and representatives of individual nations since last year.

Under the U.S. Customs Container Security Initiative (CSI), ports agree to use automated information to identify and target high-risk containers, prescreening them with detection technology before they depart from a foreign port and sending cargo manifests to U.S. authorities 24 hours before the vessel arrives in the United States. In exchange, a ship would get a rapid clearance for its departure and arrival.

"The United States has already committed to expanding the [CSI] to all seaports in the European Union that ship cargo containers to the United States and that meet certain minimum standards," customs officials said in a statement.

"We remain hopeful that CSI will be expanded to other seaports in the European Union and elsewhere in the world," the statement added. "We are continuing to make progress in our efforts to improve the security of containerized shipping around the globe, and we look forward to continuing our discussions with the European Commission as part of that process."

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection inspects only about 4 percent of the 21,000 containers that arrive daily at U.S. ports from foreign nations. More than 12 million arrive in the United States, and experts say the system is so vulnerable that containers could be used by terrorists to smuggle components for weapons of mass destruction or hide terrorists trying to enter the country illegally.

"The threat is clearly significant and the challenge is pretty daunting," said George Weise, a former commissioner in the Customs Service who is now vice president of global trade compliance at Vastera Inc., a global technology solutions company.

"There are millions of containers of cargo that travel on a daily basis. And it will only take one or two to wreak devastation," Weise said.

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