A security mandate?

A security mandate?

It's been two years since Customs and Border Protection established the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, Container Security Initiative and other cooperative programs to shield international supply chains against terrorist threats. C-TPAT has proved popular, and Customs tallies more than 7,000 importers, carriers and intermediaries as participants. CSI has also been popular with the country's largest trading partners. The "Top 20" foreign ports that originate some 80 percent of U.S.-bound containers have U.S. Customs officials to assist local customs administrations to screen containers. The program is expanding in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa.

It all looks good on paper, but are these security programs effective when they depend so heavily on the support and good will of foreign governments and the trade industry? C-TPAT and the other components of Customs' "layered defense" against terrorist incursion have staunch backers. But congressional critics are growing restive. Are voluntary programs enough, or should Customs require the trade to adhere to security standards? There is insufficient evidence to predict whether the programs' voluntary nature will become mandatory, but for now, Congress will continue to apply pressure to get more stringent security measures from the Department of Homeland Security and its front-line agencies.

The Senate is considering a bill that would establish standards for participants in voluntary programs, effectively removing the flexibility that C-TPAT members say is its hallmark. The General Accounting Office is conducting a series of studies for the House Energy and Commerce Committee that are evaluating Customs' supply-chain security programs piece-by-piece. The GAO will scrutinize C-TPAT this summer. The congressional auditing office's analysis of Customs Automated Targeting System found that it lacked some of the key elements that a risk-management system needs. ATS is Customs' principal tool for identifying high-risk shipments. Officials with the House committee said the GAO studies are for oversight purposes. The committee has no immediate plans for legislation.

So far, Customs has successfully defended its programs. Jayson Ahern, assistant commissioner for field operations, said the whole of Customs' anti-terrorism efforts is greater than the sum of its components. "We think we have a program that will withstand the review it will receive and it has received since we rolled it out," he said. Sometimes voluntary partnership programs are more effective than enforcing standards. Customs has a track record with business partnerships to prevent drug smuggling.

"We think some of those same principles can apply as we continue to expand the C-TPAT program," Ahern said. "I believe that C-PAT does have the teeth in the program that's important for us. It doesn't necessarily have to be a mandated or required program." He said Customs relies heavily on risk management. The GAO's study may have shown weaknesses in the targeting system, but Customs will address them as it develops better rules and tables for the system.

"Certainly we're continuing to enhance and revise our Automated Targeting System. When you look at the volume of trade coming in to this country, you have to have a sorting mechanism that focuses on what the risk might be on any particular day or week," Ahern said.

Where automated targeting depends on computerized sets of rules to assess levels of risk, Ahern said that in C-TPAT, risk management depends on the trained eyes of the validation teams that make on-site visits to members' U.S. and foreign facilities. Instead of enforcing standards, Customs is aggregating best practices in security. Supporters say that will keep C-TPAT flexible, which is one of the strongest features of the program.

"We're going through our validation right now. I've been impressed with the validation team. They've been trained on a number of security things, and they're learning things about the flow of business," said Leslie Caszas, senior manager of customs and trade administration at Nissan North America.

Nissan was one of the pioneer C-TPAT companies, a group that represented some of the largest manufacturers and retailers in the country. Caszas said the program was intended to identify low-risk importers, and allow Customs to focus on the high-risk ones. But C-TPAT critics say that at 7,000 partners and growing, C-TPAT has grown unwieldy. The greater numbers water down the effectiveness of voluntary guidelines. They would opt for mandatory security standards.

Supporters, however, believe rigid standards would eventually weaken the system. "I think C-TPAT is effective as a partnership. If they start putting things in and it's more of an audit, you're going to develop that 'us-and-them' mentality that we had years ago," Caszas said. "Right now it's a partnership. They're making recommendations based on their understanding of security, but they're the first to recognize that they might not understand our business as well we do. With security, one size does not fit all. That's been our thinking since this thing came about in late 2001."

Voluntary or mandatory is a debate that will not soon run its course. The very best system may be distilled by the tension between Congress and the administration, critics and supporters. Those critics include Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. In a hearing late last month, McCain questioned the effectiveness of C-TPAT and the CSI, saying the program needs to prove its worth.

"Many of those in the maritime industry have started to openly question the value of this voluntary approach," McCain said. "Some participants continue to strongly adhere to the program's goals out of a sense of responsibility, while others, driven by their bottom line, are moving away from the program and are only meeting those requirements in law or regulation."

The problem is that the U.S. is living on borrowed time, warns Dr. Stephen E. Flynn, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a strong critic of the government's cargo-security efforts. "The core weakness of our current container security regime is that at its heart, it is a 'trust-but-do-not-verify' system," Flynn recently told the House commerce subcommittee on investigations. He said the Customs program today lacks the underlying intelligence infrastructure to support its risk-management program. The Automated Targeting System relies too much on error-prone cargo manifest data. Finally, Flynn said that what constitutes adequate inspection of a container is left to the discretion of inspectors in the field.

None of these are sufficient to prevent terrorists from concealing a weapon of mass destruction in a cargo container, and using commercial supply lines to deliver it to a target inside the U.S., Flynn said. He said technology and processes must be strengthened from the foreign manufacturer to the port of arrival. The number of scanning devices in foreign ports must increase, and containers must be equipped with sensors for detecting tampering, and tracking in transit.

"This is obviously an ambitious agenda," Flynn said, "but both the post-9/11 terrorist threat and our current vulnerability warrant a comprehensive solution." He said the nation has the intellectual capital and money to build a secure, efficient and reliable intermodal container system. "What is missing is a sense of urgency," he said. "We cannot afford to be complacent."