GAO: Customs security programs leave U.S. ports at risk

Two federal programs intended to safeguard shipping containers arriving at U.S. ports are not particularly effective at present, according to testimony delivered to a Senate subcommittee today.

Richard Stana of the General Accountability Office testified before the Senate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) programs both have shortcomings that create security gaps that terrorists could exploit.

Under the CSI program, U.S. customs officers have been stationed at 36 of the largest ports in other countries, where they work with local officials to identify and inspect 'high-risk' containers waiting to be shipped to this country.

The GAO found that as of September 2004, 28 percent of the high-risk containers were not inspected before they were shipped. Of these, the GAO could not verify that all were inspected once they actually arrived at U.S. ports.

C-TPAT also has shortcomings, Stana testified. The voluntary program encourages the different parties involved in the global supply chain ' manufacturers, importers, shippers, trucking companies, etc. ' to apply for partnership status with the government.

The companies provide security self-assessments to the Customs and Border Protection Directorate in the Homeland Security Department. The agency first certifies them, which is a review of the paperwork to make sure everything is complete and the self-defined steps to improve security meet the agency's standards. At some point after that, CBP will validate the application, which involves an on-site review to make sure the security actions have been taken.

'The first problem is that CBP awards benefits which reduce or possibly eliminate the chances of detailed inspection at the ports without verifying that members have accurately reported their security measures and that they are effective,' Stana told the senators.

In addition, though almost 9,100 companies have applied to C-TPAT, only 4,921 have been certified and just 564 have completed the validation process. At this rate, it will take CBP years to catch up on certifications, Stana said.

Robert Bonner, commissioner of the CBP, defended his agency's performance with CSI and C-TPAT. These programs are two of the four initiatives put in place by CBP to create a layered defense of cargo and port security, he said.

He insisted that containers identified as high-risk in foreign ports that don't get inspected there are handled by customs officers at U.S. ports.

'It's not required to do [high-risk containers] twice, but the policy is that they will be inspected here, if not there,' Bonner said.

'We don't have the high level of assurance that Mr. Bonner has,' Stana later responded.

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