Customs officials say international standards could enhance US efforts

The Bush administration wants to advance and refine its security and trade facilitation programs to better protect the United States from terrorist attacks without impeding the flow of trade, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official says.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Robert Bonner said on January 13 that his agency aims to make its partnership with the trade community more business-friendly as well as focused on clearer security criteria. It also is working with other countries on the implementation of international standards that promise to bring more consistency to customs agencies’ processing of international shipments.

Bonner spoke with reporters at the agency’s annual trade symposium on trade facilitation and security.

He and other CBP officials participating in the event indicated that the ultimate goal is to secure global supply chains of US (and eventually foreign) companies against terrorist exploitation. The concern is that terrorists may try to use freight containers to smuggle into the United States their operatives, a “dirty” bomb—a conventional explosive packaged with radioactive material that scatters when the bomb goes off—or other weapons of mass destruction to mount an attack on coastal facilities or inside a large city.

Bonner said his agency plans to push its Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) to its full potential. Under C-TPAT, U.S. businesses that can ensure security at suppliers’ foreign manufacturing facilities as well as en route from those facilities to a foreign port can get in return faster processing of their shipments at the US border.

He said that indeed C-TPAT participants are six times less likely to have their cargo inspected than nonparticipants. And because the number of inspections has quadrupled since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, the benefit is more than marginal.

Bonner said that CBP would like to offer even more tangible benefits—virtually no border inspections—to those C-TPAT businesses that agree to adhere to even higher standards in securing their supply chains, by, among others, moving shipments through foreign ports covered by the Containers Security Initiative (CSI), and, ideally, by dealing with foreign suppliers certified by CBP.

The CBP resources freed this way would be used to focus scrutiny on nonparticipants who—due to the nature of their trade, the region in which they do business, or other factors—pose more security risks than others, he said.

Under CSI, US customs inspectors are sent to foreign ports to identify high-risk cargo for physical examination by their local counterparts.

Bonner said that, with 34 ports participating, CSI covers about 80% of US-destined sea-going containers. He said his agency plans to expand the CSI network to 40 ports by the end of 2005 and 50 in 2006, including ports in China, Taiwan, Dubai, Argentina, Brazil and Panama.

Bonner said he realizes that some foreign suppliers, including some in Canada, are eager to join C-TPAT but are frustrated with the slow pace of the certification process. But due to limited resources, he said, CBP must be selective in certifying foreign businesses vying for C-TPAT participation and focus on big suppliers of US companies. So far only several hundred Mexican suppliers are among the more than 8,000 C-TPAT participants.

In a panel discussion, Kevin Smith, a manager from General Motors, said that businesses facing complex transportation routes, different border authorities and numerous intermediaries might not have enough information to ensure security of their entire supply chains even if they want and can afford to do so.

With that problem in mind, CBP officials worked with the World Customs Organization (WCO) to develop an international framework that would promote cooperation between national customs agencies and companies from different countries based on universal security and trade faci