WASHINGTON — U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Robert Bonner said Monday that more than 400 U.S. companies have agreed to step up dramatically the security measures they take with their cargo overseas, to avoid the possibility of terrorists using shipping containers to smuggle weapons or operatives into the U.S.
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This is part of the Customs’ post-Sept. 11 campaign to overhaul international cargo security to avoid the dire economic consequences that would result if, even for a short time, the U.S. had to shut its ports to all goods because of a terrorist attack.
“The problem is there is virtually no security in our primary system of global trade,” Bonner said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We don’t want to wait for the nuke-in-the-box.”
He said terrorists’ goals were “to attack not just the World Trade Center but world trade.”
In his progress report Monday, Bonner said the number of corporations, ocean carriers, customs brokers and freight forwarders participating in an initiative dubbed Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism has mushroomed.
Bonner said 300 of the companies that have signed up are importers, who collectively represent about 15 to 20 percent of all cargo container shipments to the U.S.
The goal is to have the top 1,000 importers — who ship about 61 percent of all cargo to the U.S. — participate, he said.
The plan requires companies to improve the security of their shipments and undertake security reviews throughout the supply chain, from factories to the docks where containers are loaded onto ships.
In exchange, companies will receive the “fast lane” entry through border crossings and seaports. Customs officials have not yet specified what that will mean.
Seven charter members, including Target Corp., Sara Lee Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., stepped up to the plate in January to participate.
Most of the largest U.S. retailers have had their security plans approved, said Erik Autor, vice president of international trade and general counsel at the National Retail Federation, who noted that most large retailers already had security systems in place to deter theft.
But he said smaller retailers need more guidance on what to submit in their applications.
In his speech, Bonner also said six of the world’s top 20 ports have agreed to participate in his Container Security Initiative, in which cargo containers are to be scrutinized by foreign and U.S. Customs officials in foreign ports before being shipped to the U.S.
Ports in Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium; Le Havre, France; Hamburg and Bremerhaven, Germany, and Singapore have agreed to implement CSI, Bonner said.
Bonner said the first team of U.S. Customs officers to be assigned to work overseas reported for duty Monday in Rotterdam. He said he expects CSI to be fully operational in that port by Sept. 2, with the other five ports coming online over the next few months.
It is the first time in the 213-year history of the Customs that inspectors will be assigned outside of North America to target and screen cargo before being shipped to the U.S.
Since approximately 68 percent of the 5.7 million sea containers entering the U.S. annually arrive from 20 foreign seaports, Customs is initially focusing on these megaports as choke points in the global trading system.
The ports of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore are the three busiest processing U.S.-bound goods and are key embarkation points for apparel and textile shipments.
Bonner said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Hong Kong authorities will join the CSI.
Changes are also in store for cargo manifests, Bonner said.
In the proposed Customs regulations, companies will be required to submit advanced cargo manifest information to Customs 24 hours prior to loading at foreign ports.
Bonner said he expects to issue a final regulation in two to three weeks after considering comments from the trade.