Where the TSA fits in

Where the TSA fits in

Ever since July, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge issued an internal order that appeared to give the Transportation Security Adminis-tration overall responsibility for cargo security, the trade community has been confused, uncertain and full of questions.

Will the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection report to the TSA, or work side by side with it on matters of cargo security? Is Customs, the traditional guardian of U.S. ports and border crossings, being relegated to a subordinate role? Should foreign countries now be dealing with the TSA? How will an emerging behind-the-scenes power struggle between Customs and the TSA get resolved? How does cargo and trade security fit into the overall priorities of the new department?

Federal agencies charged with cargo security "have not done a very good job of keeping the trade informed of how cargo security fits in with the overall scope of things," said Susan Kohn Ross, a partner in Rodriguez O'Donnell Ross Fuerst Gonzalez & Williams in Los Angeles. "In the process it appears that cargo security has almost become a stepchild, and that is too important an issue to be shunted off to one side."

While no clear answers have emerged from Homeland Security, officials in recent weeks have attempted to explain the relationship between the two sister agencies - one the guardian of the border since the beginning of the republic, the other a creation of the Sept. 11 terror attacks with clear-cut statutory authority over cargo security stemming from the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act.

Mark H. Johnson, deputy assistant administrator for maritime and land security at the TSA, said the agency has no plans to duplicate or replace the functions of "legacy" agencies such as Customs and the Coast Guard. "The TSA doesn't intend to replicate (those activities). It doesn't make sense from an efficiency standpoint, nor can the country afford it," Johnson said in a presentation to The Journal of Commerce Breakbulk Conference in New Orleans last month. "Partnering is a better description."

Johnson said the mandate of the TSA, whose focus until now has largely been on airport security, is to look at U.S. freight transportation as "an overall systems manager" for security of imports, exports and domestic transport. In that sense, its mandate is broader than those of Customs and the Coast Guard. "Transportation logistics isn't stovepipe. It is intermodal," Johnson said, noting that when one looks at areas other than international, "there are big gaps in these other areas."

A DHS official in Washington attempted to further clarify the lines of authority. "The TSA has an overarching role for transportation security, and I suppose that is where the definitions are getting blurred," the official said.

He said that role is probably clearest in Operation Safe Commerce, the federal program sponsoring pilot projects to determine best practices and technologies for supply-chain security. The TSA is responsible for coordinating the program's activities. But the official said there also is a role for the Coast Guard, Customs and the Department of Transportation. "TSA has a coordinating role in OSC, but no agency will give up its traditional functional role," the official said.

The TSA also will take the lead role on container seals later this year. The Maritime Transportation Security Act calls on Homeland Security to "develop performance standards to enhance the physical security of shipping containers, including standards for seals and locks." Those standards are expected to be implemented by Jan. 1.