Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 27, 2008

Customs-Trade Security Program Scrutinized

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 27, 2008

The Government Accountability Office today released its assessment of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), a program by the Department of Homeland Security intended to reduce security scrutiny of importers, port authorities, and air, sea and land cargo carriers if these parties commit to self-imposed security standards. GAO finds that C-TPAT has gaps that terrorists could exploit to smuggle weapons of mass destruction in cargo containers.

C-TPAT is the federal program established after 9/11 to discover or deter a potential terrorist attack on or use of commercial cargo passing through 326 of the nation’s airports, seaports, and land crossings.

GAO is also currently investigating the DHS programs focused on combating the threat of smuggled nuclear weapons, specifically those managed by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. They have expressed a specific interest in the strategy aspects of how the global nuclear detection architecture figures in. This line of inquiry quickly gets us to the topic of port security in light of the 9/11 Act and its corresponding mandate for 100% scanning of all cargo en route to U.S. ports and corresponding programs like C-TPAT.

The nearly 8000 commercial participants in the C-TPAT program are granted reduced scrutiny of their cargo in exchange for submitting a security plan meeting U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s standards and allowing CBP officials to verify (even at random) implementation of their measures.

According to AP reporting on the GAO findings, under C-TPAT:

• Companies are certified based on self-reported security information that Customs employees use to determine if minimum government criteria are met. But due partly to limited resources, the agency does not typically test the member company’s supply-chain security practices and thus is “challenged to know that members’ security measures are reliable, accurate and effective.”

• Customs employees are not required to utilize third-party or other audits of a company’s security measures as an alternative to the agency’s direct testing, even if such audits exist.

• Companies can get certified for reduced Customs inspections before they fully implement any additional security improvements requested by the U.S. government. Under the program, Customs also does not require its employees to systematically follow up to make sure the requested improvements were made and that security practices remained consistent with the minimum criteria.

I hope to give this GAO report a closer read today, but readers are encouraged to weigh in on the study if they’ve already culled through it in detail. In the meantime, keep an eye out for coverage of the House Homeland Security Committee hearings on resilience in Congressional Quarterly.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 27, 2008 @ 9:35 am

Self-reporting and paper audits don’t cut it when it comes to WMD defense.

Comment by Thomas Glenn

May 28, 2008 @ 9:05 am

It is well-documemented within the C-TPAT minimum security criteria that members must be proactive and act responsively to potential threats to cargo en route to the U.S. The GAO’s report is not new news. This is after all a ‘partnership’ against terrorism, and as such, the Wal-Marts and Maersk Lines and HPH Terminals of the world must be expected to (and be given the chance to) fulfill their end of the bargain. Rest assured, Walmart and Target certainly do not want their names attached to a terrorist-infiltrated ocean container, and it it this brand protection factor (along with the promise of quicker times through ports) that drives top companies to remain vigilant and manage their own supply chain security. It should also be noted that the C-TPAT certifications you mention that are probationally approved prior to completion of all security requirements are the exception, not the rule – only those shippers with long, flawless histories of U.S. importing will be granted the probational status.

So let’s level set here. The mission for C-TPAT is to be a “voluntary government-business initiative to build cooperative relationships that strengthen and improve overall international supply chain and U.S. border security.” GAO Report notwithstanding, there has NOT been a significant threat against a U.S. port since 9/11, and international supply chain volumes and cycle times have improved, given the reduced number of inspections and priority processing. But are we nevertheless saying the program is a failure because GAO points out a potential security breach?

I agree that the U.S. needs to take every step to ensure that our borders are secure, but folks, the show must go on, so there has to be a balance, otherwise we will find that our ports become gridlocked with containers moving at a snail’s pace through ports, waiting for every one of the 20+ million boxes to be scanned or inspected. In this way, disruption of supply chains will become the norm, lead times and carrying costs will increase, and ultimately every American will feel the pinch in their pocketbooks.

Who wins then?

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