WASHINGTON — The top Bush administration official in charge of cargo security told a Senate panel Thursday that many foreign ports are lacking anti-terrorism measures, which could lead to increased inspections and arrival delays of their U.S.-bound goods.
How U.S. Customs sizes up the terrorist threat at foreign ports is increasingly becoming an issue of retailers and other importers of textiles and apparel.
However, Asa Hutchinson, a Department of Homeland Security undersecretary, would only identify these ports as being among the hundreds of foreign embarkation points that have yet to join the fledgling U.S. Container Security Initiative that pre-screens cargo containers before they’re loaded onto ocean carriers.
“If they want to export goods here, they are going to have to raise their standards,” Hutchinson said of these ports lacking proper protocols to protect against weaponry being smuggled in U.S.-bound cargo.
Hutchinson’s comments came during testimony before the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
Meanwhile, with the U.S.-led war in Iraq not even a day old and U.S. ports under heightened security, Hutchinson said that while the “threat of terrorist activity has increased overall” for the U.S., there’s no evidence ports are being singled out.
However, cargo security remains a priority in the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism campaign, which committee chairwoman Susan Collins (R., Maine) underscored at the hearing when she said, “Cargo containers offer a frighteningly simple and anonymous way to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States.”
Foreign countries are eager to join Customs’ CSI program, launched soon after the Sept. 11 attacks and designed to have cargo pre-screened before ocean carriers are loaded. A port’s cargo volume and use of modern infrastructure and technology are key to early CSI membership.
The program started with the world’s 20 largest ports. Of these 20, only six — all European except Singapore — are now full-fledged CSI participants, with U.S. Customs inspectors working alongside local officials.
Ports named CSI members are being viewed by importers as a plus for moving goods. However, countries without the designation are concerned about losing a competitive edge. The only top foreign apparel and textile embarkation points in line to join CSI are the Chinese ports of Shanghai, Yantian and Hong Kong.
Hutchinson, acknowledging the massive global task ahead to deploy CSI globally, gave no timetable or list for when and which ports will be approached to be members. But Hutchinson said importers using a non-CSI port can still avoid time-consuming cargo inspections by auditing their supply chains for security under another post-9/11 Customs program called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. There are 2,060 C-TPAT members, many of them apparel and textile importers and retailers, and their cargo is given less scrutiny. There also is another, mandatory Customs program requiring importers to provide cargo manifests 24 hours before a carrier is loaded.
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said the slow-moving roll out of CSI is benefiting large ports and companies.
“There is going to be a premium for big guys everywhere, from the biggest ports to the biggest shippers,” Hughes said. “If a company is participating in all of these security programs, then they will have an advantage over a company that may use only one small port. That doesn’t mean a company can’t do business at all. There might be some interruptions in the trade flow, however.”