What's in the box? It doesn't matter

What's in the box? It doesn't matter

I was recently asked a perfectly intelligent question: "A terrorist isn't going to tell you he's put a bomb in a container . . . so, how do you know what someone claims is in the box is what in fact it is?" My stock answer was that you can lie about it, but something . . . an anomalous pattern, a party connected to the transaction . . . will always give it away.

It later occurred to me that the right answer is that it doesn't actually matter what anyone says is in the box, because it really doesn't matter what's in the box.

Sure, it matters for customs compliance and for hazardous materials shipments, and it helps after you've decided you may have a problem. Counter-intuitively, however, it doesn't matter at all for profiling and risk assessment related to terrorism. The common belief that it does is mistakenly dangerous.

I call this the compliance trap. It's an approach based on U.S. Customs' historic mission prior to Sept. 11 - look for drugs, detect smuggling and contraband, catch intellectual property and currency violations, and, in the really good old days, collect customs duties and other forms of revenue. In this compliance world, what is important is what's declared, what's not, and what's what.

Where terrorism is concerned, however, it's not the contents but the context. People, processes and events, rather than goods, are what are relevant. The "virtual border" and the derivative 24-hour rule were animated by this idea - that everyday commercial transactions, fused with intelligence data, can provide a picture of the confluence of events and parties in which trace patterns of terrorist activity can be seen. Who touched a shipment, where it's been or is going, who paid for or insured it, who owned the ship or truck that moved it, perhaps C-TPAT participation, are together more likely indicators of risk than the bill of lading. No one needs know what's in - or what someone says is in - a container to conclude that there's a need for a physical inspection.

Despite the fact that terrorism and smuggling aren't the same thing - an overlap in methods, but not congruency - some at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection still think like border cops looking for a bust. What we need, instead, is a sophisticated analytical approach that reflects the understanding that it's at least as likely as not that a terrorist will take a path or employ methods we've never seen, using people and practices to screen their actions, to insert themselves into the process. What we don't need is an inflexible system built on limited analytics that didn't work very well in the first place.

This compliance trap mentality has contorted - and undermined - the usefulness of the 24-hour rule, which requires information about every incoming shipment to be submitted to Customs at least 24 hours before the shipment is loaded at the foreign seaport. Detailed, unverifiable business data (product descriptions) are now artificially jammed through a transportation document (the manifest), not only upending the crucial context - the balance of commercial relationships - but, more critically, contaminating the data. When Customs officials brag that they now have a better grip on tariffs and customs duties, they're actually broadcasting their failure to understand the terrorism problem. Do any of us in the trade really believe we're safer because Customs now gets the six-digit code for tennis shoes 24 hours before sailing or picked up $80 million in new duties?

What doesn't get asked for - advanced submissions of data on bulk cargoes and on cargoes valued at less than $2,000 - underscores the point. Why is this? Because the government did it this way when it was looking for drugs, duties and contraband. Exempted compliance categories are exempted terrorism categories. As my teenage son would say, "well, duh." If you were a terrorist, wouldn't you figure this out?

This task should be assigned to another agency such as the Transportation Security Administration or Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection that understands that this is about terrorism, trade and transportation, not drugs and duties. Customs can police the border, but the data and the decision-making need to go someplace where the blinders of institutional experience don't lead down a false path.

Compliance may indeed require knowledge of the contents. But no one needs to know what's in the box to know whether there's a risk of terrorism. Practices and mindset related to the former in fact undermine success in the latter. We need someone in charge who understands the difference and why.

Rob Quartel is chairman and chief executive of FreightDesk Technologies, a transportation software provider, and a former U.S. Federal Maritime Commissioner and founder of the Jones Act Reform Coalition.