WASHINGTON — The Customs Service’s mammoth effort to step up the security of the thousands of cargo containers that enter U.S. ports each day is gaining steam.

Since April, companies that import 34 percent of all U.S.-bound cargo have signed up to participate in a voluntary supply-chain security program called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. The program’s goal is to prevent a cargo container from being used to smuggle terrorist operatives or materials into the U.S.

That news was revealed Thursday by Robert Perez, director of field operations for the initiative, at a meeting with 500 officials from an array of companies, many of them C-TPAT participants like Sara Lee Corp. Customs is offering companies who participate in the program faster processing of their cargo through U.S. ports if the companies undertake a security audit, tightening weak links in security from factory floors to foreign ports.

Perez said 90 percent of the U.S.-bound ocean carriers have signed on with their own C-TPAT protocol.

"The primary goal of C-TPAT is all about creating more secure supply chains, while at the same time making it more efficient," Perez said, describing the cargo effort as simply a risk-management tool. "In the end, that’s what it’s all about: Managing risk better…. We’re going to move our stuff out of the way so we can focus on the unknown."

In coming months, Perez said the agency plans to enlist foreign countries and companies into C-TPAT. The agency also will begin to select audits of C-TPAT participants, which Perez calls "validations." However, he stressed that these validations aren’t designed to levy punishments, but rather to strengthen the supply chain.

He stressed the voluntary nature of the program and need for government-business cooperation.

"I really don’t see the day when we will have the resources to go out and audit 100 percent," he said.

Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, who launched the two-day meeting that ends today, said Customs is working to balance its role of protecting the population by keeping weapons out, with the need to protect the economy by letting legitimate goods in.

"Besides our security mission, we have an important role to play in making sure that legitimate goods move through our borders as efficiently as possible," he said. "We must protect the American economy as well as the American people."

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