An open letter to Tom Ridge

An open letter to Tom Ridge

The Honorable Tom Ridge

Secretary of Homeland Security

Washington, D.C.

Dear Secretary Ridge,

Few people would take issue with the idea that you have perhaps the toughest job in the federal government, if not the nation. You have been tasked with a job that is unprecedented in American history, to protect the country from the elusive and deadly threat of terrorism, and to get the job done "yesterday." Yet it is fair to say the president's confidence in your abilities when he nominated you as the nation's first Secretary of Homeland Security has been borne out by results - as there can be no doubt that the nation is safer today than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

Part of the reason is that the international trade system, particularly the system of ocean container transport, is no longer the gaping security hole it was before the terror attacks. No longer do thousands of cargo containers arrive at U.S. ports every day with no assurance of their contents beyond than what the shippers claimed the cargoes to be. The same goes for imports arriving by train, truck or air. You and your department can rightly point to progress in protecting the public from a weapon imported under the guise of legitimate trade.

Yet for all that has been achieved, there are warning signs that cry out for your attention. Key junctures in the international supply chain, such as the loading of the container at the foreign factory or consolidation center, and the journey that container then makes to the foreign seaport, remain black holes from a security point of view. Even worse, the process by which we as a nation figure out a way to plug these holes has ground to a halt. The heady days of trade security ramp-up in 2002 have given way to a silent, fog-bound landscape in which your department has all but ceased to communicate with the private sector about where this effort needs to go from here.

There is no shortage of challenges yet to be addressed. Today there is no meaningful security of any kind, such as access controls or background checks of workers, at foreign loading points, and few have any idea where a container really goes en route to the foreign seaport. A container that may appear kosher can be compromised either during loading or en route. That reality is made painfully clear every time a stowaway is discovered hidden inside a container.

Yet the biggest concern is that an established framework for discussing and resolving issues such as these is being lost. In the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, your department acquired an agency with a remarkable record of working effectively with the private sector to achieve its own goals. As international trade expanded at a dizzying pace over the past 20 years, Customs' staff and resources grew at a much slower rate because funding priorities lay elsewhere. Yet Customs' ability to fulfill its mission was never in serious doubt. Why? Because year after year it reached out to the private sector - importers, logistics providers and shipping companies - and engaged in the difficult, time-consuming give-and-take required to make the process of handling imports more efficient. That history of cooperation enabled Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner to move at lightning speed (for a government agency) in establishing the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.

The challenges you face are not fundamentally different. Washington (barring another catastrophic attack) is not likely to cough up billions of dollars to secure international supply chains. Merely shifting the bill to the private sector is equally unrealistic. That would strike at the heart of American economic competitiveness - violating a central premise of our post-Sept. 11 trade-security doctrine. The solution, no different from earlier days, is for your department to engage the private sector and together devise workable solutions.

Yet that is not happening. DHS agencies have become fortresses of bureaucracy. Business people can't find DHS representatives to speak with, and if they do, they can't get satisfying answers. Thanks to cryptic directives issued this summer from your office, it's now unclear whether Customs or the Transportation Security Administration is in charge.

Mr. Secretary, true trade security will not come by directive, and it cannot be achieved through behind-the-scenes power struggles and bureaucrats brainstorming behind closed doors. This process must be opened up or the progress that's desperately needed will get delayed for years, with potentially deadly consequences.

Respectfully,

Peter Tirschwell

Peter Tirschwell is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell@joc.com.