A flimsy seal rule

A flimsy seal rule

For many container importers, Oct. 15 will come and go virtually unnoticed. That's the day that seals must secure all containers arriving in the U.S. by sea. Whether because of traditional practice to protect cargo from theft, or to become a C-TPAT member in good standing, the vast majority of importers will already be in compliance with this requirement, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But it is useful at this juncture to call out this rule for what it is: the thinnest of layers of the multilayered cargo security regime.

Note what the rule requires and what it doesn't: Upon its arrival in the U.S. - not at any point before - a container arriving by sea must be secured by an ISO-compliant cable or bolt seal. The rule doesn't apply to trucks or containers arriving by rail, having landed at a Canadian or Mexican port. The same container can arrive at the foreign port unsealed, and it won't have violated the rule. It can arrive unsealed on a train from Canada and also not be out of compliance.

Therein lies the key weakness of this rule, and also the main departure from an earlier, more aggressive vision for the use of seals in container security. That was to use seals as a way to ensure integrity of the container from the point of stuffing in the foreign country to the foreign port. That was (and is) seen as an opaque, difficult-to-monitor leg in the supply chain when containers could be especially vulnerable to infiltration by bad guys. No one really monitors where trucks go in foreign lands. The idea was to require verification at the foreign port that the seal is intact and that its number corresponds to cargo documents. When then Department of Homeland Security's then-undersecretary for border and transportation security, Asa Hutchinson, said in 2004 that the DHS would "aggressively pursue" a regulation to require container seals, this was what he had in mind.

The problem was that it couldn't be made to work. Verifying the seal of every container when some arrive through terminal gates while others are transshipped via feeder ship was too much, even for a government just a few years removed from 9/11 and determined to find ways to secure the supply chain. "That was going to be a very labor-intensive process where someone would have to look at the integrity of the seal, make sure the (seal) number was the same as the documents, and, if not, require a physical inspection. There was a significant cost associated with it," said Todd Owen, who oversees Customs' cargo security programs as executive director of cargo and conveyance security.

The current rule is therefore much more limited in its impact, so one might ask, what's the point. The point is probably no more profound than the fact that Congress mandated it in the 2007 legislation implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations. Forget that it flies in the face of the doctrine of "pushing the borders out." That is perhaps why even Customs is playing down the rule's security value and instead sees it as just a piece in its broader, multilayered security strategy.

"The security value added is minimal, but that is why we come back to the layered strategy; any single defense can be defeated, but if you have multiple complementary layers of security, the likelihood of breaching that supply chain is greatly diminished," Owen said. "It adds a little bit of security but is not a significant enhancement, but it is one part of the totality of efforts to secure the international supply chain."

Nor does Customs see the rule as a big deal for industry. The use of seals, though not necessarily ones that are ISO-compliant, became widespread as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program was adopted throughout the importing community and among carriers and 3PLs. "We all anticipate the impact to be minimal because everybody is already using seals," Owen said. Some seal manufacturers believe the impact will be larger, because while most container have seals, few of them are manufactured to the ISO/PAS 17712 standard required in the regulation.

From a security perspective, seals are not completely insignificant. They do lock the container while it moves around, so that might serve as a deterrent at some level. And among the first factors Customs looks at when inspecting containers that have been flagged as high risk is whether the seal number matches the number on the cargo documents. So perhaps it counts for something.