Audits, hearings raise doubts about benefits of C-TPAT, CSI

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has been feeling the heat in recent weeks, as a government audit and a Senate hearing repeatedly questioned whether CBP’s management of two key cargo security programs is producing expected results. CBP said it was taking steps to improve the programs.

On May 24, the Government Accountability Office released a report raising serious questions about the benefits of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Container Security Initiative, two programs initiated in the aftermath of September 11. On May 26, the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Homeland Security Committee added fuel to the fire when it opened hearings on the cargo security programs.

The key GAO criticism of C-TPAT is that the vast majority of firms receiving benefits from the program had not had their security plans validated by CBP. As a result, over 90% of firms enjoying expedited customs clearance do not have validated security programs. As for CSI, the GAO noted that CBP fell short of having high-risk containers inspected at ports of origin.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), chairman of the Senate subcommittee, opened his hearing by terming C-TPAT’s performance “unacceptable.” “Ninety-four percent of the C-TPAT importers currently receiving seven times fewer inspections have not had their supply chain security personally validated by a CBP officer,” he noted.

With regard to CSI, Coleman added, “Our subcommittee has identified some CSI ports that routinely waive the inspection of high-risk containers. Numerous high-risk containers are not subjected to an examination overseas, thereby undermining the primary objective and purpose of CSI.”

The GAO report stated that CBP had intended to validate C-TPAT security plans within three years, but that only 11% have now undergone that process. The validation process is intended to verify that security measures undertaken by members are reliable, accurate, and effective. But, the GAO found, “CBP grants benefits before members undergo the validation process,” after examining applicant’s self-assessments and considering their past performance. In addition, the GAO found CBP’s validation process “not rigorous.”

The CSI program, the GAO acknowledged, “has resulted in improved information sharing between US and foreign customs operations and a heightened level of international awareness regarding securing the global shipping system.” But staffing shortages at some CSI ports “limit CBP’s ability to successfully target containers to determine if they are high-risk,” the GAO found. Further, 28% of the containers referred to host governments were not inspected. “One percent of these referrals were denied by host government officials, generally because they believed the referrals were based on factors not related to security threats.”

Defending the program

Among GAO’s recommendations to improve C-TPAT: strengthening the validation process, developing performance measures, and implementing a records management system to document key decisions and operational events.

CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner defended CBP’s performance on a number of fronts at the Senate hearing. First, he noted that, 2,079 C-TPAT validations are currently underway. In addition, he said, CBP has changed its methods for validating security plans. “Not all C-TPAT enrollment sectors exhibit the same risk to the international supply chain, nor do they possess the same ability to strengthen their supply chains,” he declared. Therefore, he added, CBP is focusing its validation efforts on the two sectors that are best able to pressure foreign entities to enhance security practices, importers and carriers.

Bonner also noted that CBP “has implemented a tiered system of C-TPAT benefits, based on the level of security, validation results, and use of C-TPAT best practices.” Tier I consists of companies that have committed to minimum criteria, had their