GAO Evaluates Programs Targeting Cargo Overseas

WASHINGTON — Spurred by the security concerns of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the GAO has launched an investigation into the effectiveness of two Bush administration initiatives aimed at targeting suspicious overseas cargo before it reaches U.S. ports (see GSN, March 9).

The investigation comes as the Homeland Security Department is asking Congress to approve a $25 million increase for the Container Security Initiative, which is designed to screen U.S.-bound cargo in foreign ports, and $15.2 million more for the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program, which seeks to help importers and ocean freight companies improve security.

Several lawmakers, including Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) have told the GAO they are concerned that the programs may not be doing enough to block terrorists from sneaking nuclear or bio-chemical weapons and other dangerous materials aboard ships bound for busy U.S. ports.

“We want to see how much bang we’re getting for the buck,” said a Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the request, which came after a fact-finding mission by congressional aides last summer to Hamburg and Bremerhaven, two German ports participating in the CSI program.

The delegation discovered a low percentage of containers were actually inspected, according to one participant on the trip. At Hamburg, U.S. Customs personnel were miles away from the port and their foreign counterparts. Because the CSI program is voluntary, foreign port inspectors can refuse requests by Customs officials for further scrutiny of suspicious freight containers, this source said.

A congressional aide who was briefed about the trip told CongressDaily that the limited authority of U.S. Customs officials to monitor shipping containers in foreign ports or compel others to inspect them raises troubling questions about the program’s effectiveness.

Under the CSI program, officers from the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection Bureau work with their foreign counterparts at participating ports overseas to target high-risk cargo containers.

It currently involves 18 of the largest 20 Asian and European ports, which account for about two-thirds of all the containers coming into the United States, according to the department.

The GAO was urged to look into both the CSI and C-TPAT programs in a letter sent last September by Collins, Coleman, Senate Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and House Energy and Commerce ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich).

Referring to the fact-finding mission, the lawmakers acknowledged that the container security program could be a useful part of the arsenal in combating terrorism.

But “the facts also indicated that both CSI and C-TPAT, while at an early stage, currently lack the resources and long-term planning to reach their full potential, and face a number of compelling challenges that further impact their ability to deliver on their promise,” they wrote.

Under the C-TPAT program, companies assess their security — from factory floor to foreign loading dock to U.S. seaports — using the program’s guidelines and make improvements where needed. In exchange, they receive expedited processing from Customs and Border Protection.

About 3,000 importers, 600 carriers and 1,000 brokers and freight forwarders are participating, according to the Homeland Security Department.

The lawmakers asked GAO to look at the CSI criteria used to target containers for inspection, the type of inspection technology used, coordination between the Customs and Border Security bureau and the host country and whether current CSI staffing is adequate. They also want to know what the bureau to doing to ensure that companies participating in the C-TPAT program are meeting their obligations.

Richard Stana, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice, said the investigation was just beginning and GAO had not yet chosen which ports to visit.

In December, Stana told the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that while Customs has taken positive steps to address terrorism risks to oceangoing cargo containers, it “has not come up with a comprehensive set of threat, criticality, vulnerability and risk assessments that experts said are vital for determining level of risk for each container and the types of responses necessary to mitigate that risk.”

Since CSI has been operational — not many containers have been checked, according to Stephen Flynn, an expert on transportation security at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is due in part to the department’s limited resources, the program’s dependence on the host country’s friendliness and concerns about “crying wolf” too often, he said. In addition, most Customs personnel are rotated in-and out of assignments, which means they just start to understand what they are doing before they are shipped home, he said.

Decisions to inspect containers are often based on the cargo manifests, whether the container comes from troubled parts of the word or an unknown shipper or is accompanied by bungled paperwork, Flynn said. Cargo manifests can be very unreliable and terrorists know who the trusted shippers are, he said.

March 12, 2004

WASHINGTON — Spurred by the security concerns of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the GAO has launched an investigation into the effectiveness of two Bush administration initiatives aimed at targeting suspicious overseas cargo before it reaches U.S. ports (see GSN, March 9).