WASHINGTON — Facing Congressional criticism of port security initiatives, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner told a Senate subcommittee on Thursday that steps have been taken to make ports safer but conceded that more needs to be done.

“These initiatives … seek to add security to our country, but to do so without choking off the flow of trade that is so important to our economy,” Bonner said in opening remarks to the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. “I believe these initiatives are working, and I am convinced America is safer today because of them. There are further improvements we want to make to make these initiatives more effective.”

Bonner testified at a hearing to review the Container Security Initiative and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Act, which were started after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A report released Wednesday by the Government Accounting Office cited serious flaws in the agency’s port security efforts.

The Customs-Trade initiative is a voluntary program that has gained participation from retail importers such as Wal-Mart Stores, Federated Department Stores and Target Corp., as well as apparel firms, including Kellwood Co., Liz Claiborne Inc. and Jockey International. It is designed to bring uniformity to supply chain security procedures. A key incentive to take part has been a pledge by Customs to speed up time-consuming cargo inspections at U.S. ports, which often result in costly delivery delays.

The GAO said companies immediately receive these benefits once they are certified based on a review of a firm’s supply import procedures, but it can take Customs as long as three years to validate and verify them. Bonner said the agency has enrolled 5,013 companies, though it has only completed 591 validations. He said many participants are major U.S. retailers and importers with which Customs has dealt for years and “are signing on the line that they are committing to meeting security criteria.”

Sen. Norm Coleman (R., Minn.), who chairs the subcommittee, said: “The concern, however, is you have a substantial number of operations that are not all Wal-Mart and not all known internationally, and they receive benefits through certification prior to validation. If we fail here — and we can’t allow it — and folks come back and ask how an [illegal] operation got through when it was just looked at on paper and never [validated] … this would be tough to respond to if, God forbid, the unthinkable happens.”

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Bonner said Customs, responding to some of the GAO’s recommendations, has reduced the number of benefits certified companies receive and is increasing the number of supply chain specialists in an effort to validate companies more quickly.

Under the Container Security Initiative, Customs inspectors are placed at approved foreign ports — there are 36 — from which most of the almost 10 million containers shipped to the U.S. last year emanated. Some 11 million containers arrived by truck last year and another 6 million by rail. Often, these ports — about half are in Asia and half in Europe — are the last relay points for shipments from other countries. The purpose of pre-screening cargo at the point of embarkation by using X-ray equipment, intelligence and a thorough inspection is to prevent a container tampered with by terrorists from entering the U.S.

The GAO report on the CSI program found flaws based on staffing imbalances at participating ports and also found that 28 percent of shipments from foreign ports were not subject to inspection.

Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) raised the issue with Bonner and asked how confident he was that containers deemed “high risk” for a terrorist activity were being inspected at foreign ports.

“I can say with a fair degree of confidence that high-risk containers are being screened, if not at a CSI port, then upon arrival in the U.S.,” Bonner said.

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