CBP Examining More Cargo, Says GAO

By Matthew Harwood

A new analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has improved its examination of high-risk cargo containers at foreign seaports.

Many experts in and out of government fear that terrorists could exploit the global maritime supply chain and slip a weapon of mass destruction into a cargo container destined for the United States.

According to the report, U.S.-bound cargo is now examined at 58 foreign seaports that together handle 86 percent of all U.S.-bound cargo containers. CBP has also added 125 permanent staff to foreign seaports where cargo is examined, as well as 15 staff to the National Targeting Center - Cargo (NTCC) to bolster its cargo security mission. This expansion has sparked better relationships with host governments and has improved custom and port security practices overseas.

The CBP conducts examinations as part of its Container Security Initiative (CSI), an existing agency program that was codified by the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act, signed by President Bush in October 2006.

According to the CBP, there are three core elements to the CSI:

  • Identify high-risk containers.  CBP uses automated targeting tools to identify containers that pose a potential risk for terrorism, based on advance information and strategic intelligence.
  • Prescreen and evaluate containers before they are shipped.  Containers are screened as early in the supply chain as possible, generally at the port of departure.
  • Use technology to prescreen high-risk containers to ensure that screening can be done rapidly without slowing down the movement of trade.  This technology includes large-scale X-ray and gamma ray machines and radiation detection devices.

The GAO praised the CSI, stating it "has contributed to the overall U.S. strategic planning efforts related to enhancing security for the overseas supply chain."

Despite the CBP's successes, vulnerabilities still exist.

The GAO warns that CBP still needs to develop guidelines for assessing whether host governments are adequately examining cargo before it is cleared for shipment to the United States. Incoming cargo containers are rarely reexamined upon their arrival in the United States if checked at a CSI seaport.

The CBP has also not set minimum technical standards for scanning equipment as required by the SAFE Port Act and the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (9/11 Act). This action is important if the United States is ever to achieve 100 percent scanning of all U.S.-bound containers as required by the prior two laws.

Finally, the CBP could also strengthen its process for evaluating the performance of its CSI teams at foreign seaports.





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