The October 2010 discovery of bomb-making materials from Yemen in express air cargo shipments bound for the U.S. served as a wake-up call for Customs and Border Protection. To secure the nation’s borders, Customs realized it must work more closely with the trade community to identify and intercept high-risk shipments.
Customs responded to the Yemen incident by “co-creating” with express carriers and forwarders an Air Cargo Advance Screening Pilot Project. Express carriers now send to and receive from Customs advance information that allows the government to target potentially high-risk air cargo shipments.
Development of the advance-screening project, like other Customs initiatives, was a give-and-take process in which the government and the private sector shared their expertise. It’s a strategy Customs intends to carry out in its dual function of securing the nation’s borders while facilitating the clearance of low-risk shipments.
“We sat down with industry and told them we do not want to secure you out of business, but we must keep our air environment secure,” said Maria Luisa O’Connell, senior adviser to the commissioner in Customs’ Office of Field Operations.
April’s thwarted terrorist attack against a U.S.-bound plane, revealed last week and also believed to be the work of al Qaeda in Yemen, is just another sign that the terrorism risk, while diminished to some degree following Osama bin Laden’s death and other high-profile al Qaeda losses, is still very real. Indeed, the April attempt signified terrorists are using more sophisticated technology and strategies.
But for all their attempts, terrorists have failed to pull off an attack in the U.S. since September 11. The security initiatives, and Customs itself, certainly get credit, and the agency is winning points for striking a balance between security and trade.
Importers, exporters, customs brokers and freight forwarders give Customs an “E” for effort in reaching out to the trade community to share in the development of its trade transformation program.
Customs is engaged in several initiatives that enlist “trusted partners” — companies with a track record of compliance — to enhance security while expediting the movement of low-risk shipments. Those initiatives include simplified entry processes, Centers for Excellence and Expertise and One U.S. Government at the Border.
The trade community supports Customs’ efforts, especially its initiative to simplify the entry-filing process. “The telling thing is that CBP has gone out of its way to make it work,” said Susan Kohn Ross, international trade counsel with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp who writes a monthly Customs Update commentary for The Journal of Commerce.
By combining advanced filing of cargo information with simplified filing requirements for importers, Customs will be better able to fulfill its enforcement responsibilities while facilitating the release of low-risk cargo, O’Connell said.
In this era of budget austerity, however, the trade community says Customs is limited in how quickly it can implement its initiatives, including the most important program of all, the Automated Commercial Environment. ACE has been under development for more than a decade.
Customs’ latest initiative to reach out to the trade community is through large regional seminars. Customs held its first West Coast Trade Symposium on May 10, and will hold an East Coast symposium in the fall.
In interviews leading up to the Long Beach symposium, Customs managers stressed the agency’s initiatives are truly intended to transform how it receives, processes and transmits key cargo data used to clear millions of ocean, air and border shipments each year.
Customs’ resources are spread too thin to secure the nation’s borders while relying only on its own people. Recent commissioners have stressed the importance of working closely with trusted partners to spot shipments that don’t fit the profile of what experience indicates should be a redundant, low-risk shipment.
Of the many items on Customs’ wish list, the trade community believes the top need is to fund the completion of ACE, the automated umbrella system for all of the agency’s communications with importers, exporters and brokers. ACE eventually will replace the Automated Commercial System that Customs developed internally, but progress has been slow for reasons related to program design and funding.
ACE contains modules covering a wide range of programs, including the International Trade Data System. The ITDS is a single portal that will allow all government agencies that touch international cargo to communicate with each other and the trade.
Bringing together as many as 48 federal agencies is difficult, and even though ITDS was first tested in 2001, “a lot of work needs to be done” to establish one government at the border, O’Connell said. Only then will the sometimes-conflicting filing and processing requirements of federal agencies be eliminated.
Establishing uniformity has been an elusive goal even within Customs, especially in the classification and clearance of cargo that moves through its 329 ports of entry. But Todd Owen, director of field operations in Southern California, said Customs has made significant progress in recent years, and the practice of “port shopping,” in which importers seek out the port of entry with the fewest obstacles to clearance, has become a thing of the past.
Importers now are approaching Customs with questions about classification or duties for new products even before the first shipments arrive in the United States. Customs experts provide binding rulings that guide local offices as well as the trade community in the importation process, Owen said.
Customs’ quest for uniformity has been elevated further through the establishment of commodity-specific Centers for Excellence and Expertise. Government experts at the CEEs share their knowledge with the private sector, and industry leaders share their best practices with the government, Owen said.
At the Long Beach center, which focuses on electronics, the industry has shared with Customs its methods of detecting and preventing the importation of counterfeit goods, for example. Customs also has a center in New York, which focuses on pharmaceuticals. It intends to eventually have nine centers nationwide.