Homeland Security

Lawmakers look to CBP, Post Office on opioid data sharing

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International shipments of the powerful and deadly opioid Fentanyl are on the rise, and lawmakers are pushing the U.S. Post Office and Department of Homeland Security for solutions.

At the confirmation hearing for Kirstjen Nielsen, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead DHS, members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee sought help in pushing the USPS and DHS to collaborate on sharing data on the shipments, as well as in developing systems to better monitor them.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) asked Nielsen if she would support legislation mandating the Post Office implement technology that other shipping providers such as FedEx and DHL have implemented that provides advance customs data on international packages to Customs and Border Protection.

During Nielsen's confirmation hearing, Portman said advance shipment data is key to stopping international shipments of the deadly drug, which he said tend to originate in China. Portman and several colleagues have introduced a bill to provide advance data on packages prior to their arrival in the U.S., flagging shipments that seem likely to contain the chemicals.

Currently, CBP doesn't have advance shipping data from USPS that can potentially flag opiate-bearing international packages.

Despite the gap, A CBP spokesman told FCW in an email the agency is working hard on the front lines in the battle against fentanyl coming into the U.S.

He said CBP's nine International Mail Facilities inspect mail arriving from more than 180 countries, where drugs are regularly found packaged inside objects ranging from food to toys to electronics.

However, he added that synthetic drug traffickers are getting craftier in how they mail the drug, exploiting the sheer volume of international mail and sending smaller packages containing the substance.

"There is no current reliable narcotics field test kit that detects the presence of fentanyl," the spokesperson said.

"The Post Office is pushing back" against the bill that would require advance shipping data, Portman said at the Nielsen hearing. "The legislation has not moved" since its introduction, he said.

Earlier this year, Robert Cintron, vice president of the Postal Service's network operations, told a HSGAC investigations subcommittee hearing that an existing USPS data system was providing some data on the activity.

The service's Advance Electronic Data provides CBP providing "an enhanced ability to target items for inspection," said Cintron. AED, he said, covers more than 90 percent outbound international mail. However, the Postal Service gets advance data on only 40 to 50 percent of inbound mail, according to Cintron.

"The Postal Service currently receives data on a substantial amount of inbound shipments, including those originating in China," he said.

During the Nov. 8 hearing, Portman told Nielsen that he has received a scattered response from DHS in getting on-the-ground appraisals from front-line CBP personnel on how much the drug is coming into U.S. ports. He asked her for help in getting to those employees to provide their input.

"Supervisors don't have the details,” Portman told Nielsen. DHS refuses to let us talk with front line people. I don't want to go to subpoenas, but we will.”

Additionally, committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) formally asked CBP in a Nov. 7 letter what the agency is doing to stop illegal opioids from being smuggled into the country at the borders. They want to know the amount and types of opioids CBP has seized over the last five years, what the agency is doing to detect and intercept shipments and what Congress can do to help that effort.

Portman pressed the would-be DHS secretary for her commitment to making agency employees more available to congressional oversight committees. He also pressed for a commitment that she would pursue package tracking system between the Post Office and Customs and Border Protection.

Nielsen vowed that she would commit to such a system and push the agency to offer technical assistance to the Post Office.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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