Vulnerabilities in cargo security programs still exist

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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Two Homeland Security Department programs designed to prevent the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction into the nation through the use of advanced detection equipment, among other measures, have significant flaws, several critics told a Senate subcommittee last week.

Several senators, after reviewing two Government Accountability Office reports outlining the gaps in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and Container Security Initiative programs (CSI), said they were troubled by the findings. The GAO reports determined that not all high-risk cargo was inspected, a lack of minimum technical standards for X-ray and other detection equipment, and slow verification of security improvements implemented voluntarily by industry stakeholders.

“While the programs were well-conceived, their level of success can only be described as modest,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The “administration has failed in port security,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), of the committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “The bottom line is the federal government has not been doing enough to protect out citizens from container-borne threats.”

While Commissioner Robert Bonner, who heads the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, acknowledged more improvement is needed, he said the programs have worked effectively and have made the country safer. The initiatives, which were implemented soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, were always intended to be “dynamic and evolving,” he said.

In the CSI program, U.S. customs officers are stationed in currently 36 overseas ports to inspect high-risk cargo before they’re bound for the United States. Some 9 million ocean cargo containers arrived in this country last year.

Although Richard Stana, director of GAO’s homeland security and justice team, said there’s been improved information sharing and international awareness to secure the global supply chain, he said one-third of U.S.-bound cargo targeted for inspection were not done by the host country.

Stana also said GAO was unable to verify through documentation that seven percent of high-risk cargo was inspected in this nation. But Bonner said with a “fair degree of confidence” all high-risk cargo is inspected.

Another shortfall is that inspection equipment at CSI ports vary in penetration capability and scan speed and there are no minimum technological requirements for the equipment. Stana said CBP has limited assurance that inspections are effective in detecting WMDs in containers. Bonner said his agency will be working with the Energy Department, which has a program to deploy radiation portals for overseas ports.

“We need those standards in order to know whether the equipment being purchased is doing the job that needs to be done,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “The absence of meaningful equipment standards is a major flaw in the container security program.”

Within the C-TPAT program, GAO investigators said customs officials criticized customs officials for providing industry stakeholders with benefits, such as expedited clearance of their shipments, before actually verifying voluntarily security measures have been implemented.

Stephen Flynn, a homeland security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. Coast Guard commander, said technology is not the problem, but how it’s integrated in the programs. For example, he said customs officers delete cargo-inspection images taken by detection equipment two or three days later instead of storing them for forensic analysis in case an event occurs.

Stewart Verdery, Jr., who was DHS’s former assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning, said improving the programs is an incremental process.

There needs to be a broader expansion of the policy office in the department coordinating CBP’s efforts with the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and Science and Technology Directorate, he said. Verdery added that agencies should not have to work out separate agreements overseas but have one office provide guidance to all the bureaus.

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