WASHINGTON — Seeking to reassure retailers, Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department’s Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, said Thursday the agency is focused on increasing antiterrorism measures without disrupting global commerce.

“Congressional language says to protect our borders and transportation systems from terrorists or weapons of terrorists that will hurt America, and then it says to do it in a way that is consistent with the free flow of commerce,” Hutchinson told about 75 retail executives at the National Retail Federation’s Washington Leadership Conference. “We do not accomplish our mission if we simply isolate America and secure America at the cost of our commercial markets.”

The need to balance security and commerce is vital to retail and apparel executives in attendance from firms such as Target Corp., Macy’s East, Liz Claiborne Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores. The U.S. each year imports textiles and apparel valued at $77 billion. The majority arrives by ship, so a terrorist attack on a port or a sharp slowdown in ocean freight traffic because of security measures could severely hurt retailers.

Nate Garvis, vice president for government affairs at Target, told Hutchinson he is concerned about reports that the Pentagon is pressuring the Coast Guard and Customs — two Homeland Security divisions — to “tilt the balance” toward security over the flow of goods.

“I wonder what role we should be playing on behalf of both parties to make sure the balancing act you are engaged in is performed more seamlessly,” Garvis said.

Hutchinson said his agency is coordinating security measures and the movement of ships among three divisions: Customs & Border Protection, the Coast Guard and Transportation Security Authority.

He also said the agency is working with industry groups to develop technologies and more secure container locks.

“The industry is getting a little ahead of us [on container security technologies],” he said. “The industry tells us it already has new technology and wants to implement it, but is afraid we will implement federal standards that are in a different direction.”

For example, Customs has been experimenting with cargo container seals developed in the private sector that are designed to detect tampering, and hopes to deploy it on all U.S.-bound containers next year.

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the NRF, questioned how Homeland Security is prepared to handle diverting cargo to other ports in the event of a terrorist attack, and whether the agency has developed procedures to reopen ports if they are forced to close.

“It would not be our desire to have a broad-based closure of ports,” said Hutchinson. “Everyone knows how devastating it would be to our economy even if we had to close one port, not to mention multiple ports, and quite frankly this is a very serious concern.”

He acknowledged, however, that coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda, which carried out the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, could create significant delays in processing cargo at ports.

“If they carried out a synchronized attack at multiple ports at the same time, the first thought would be how many other ports are in jeopardy and the natural inclination would be to close all ports,” Hutchinson said. “The other option would be to increase inspections 100 percent or keep ships out of ports pending Coast Guard inspections.”

Edward Jay Goldberg, vice president of consumer and government affairs for Macy’s East, said in an interview after the conference that the antiterrorist measures have not slowed down the movement of goods from Asia and other regions to store shelves in the U.S.

“The retailer obviously is always concerned about the ability to receive goods and certainly we don’t want to see anything interrupt the flow,” Goldberg said. “At the same time, we are very much concerned about the real-time environment, with our stores opening every day in malls and downtown shopping areas, and I can’t say this should be given greater emphasis or that should be given greater emphasis because it’s all important.”

An alleged terrorist plot to blow up a shopping mall in the Columbus, Ohio, area is “the kind of thing that can shake the confidence of the consumer and shake the foundation of the retail industry,” said Goldberg. “The suburban mall is the economic and social center of our communities, and if people become afraid that it’s not a safe place to go, I don’t have to tell you what that means for us.”

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the NRF, questioned how Homeland Security is prepared to handle diverting cargo to other ports in the event of a terrorist attack, and whether the agency has developed procedures to reopen ports if they are forced to close.

“It would not be our desire to have a broad-based closure of ports,” said Hutchinson. “Everyone knows how devastating it would be to our economy even if we had to close one port, not to mention multiple ports, and quite frankly this is a very serious concern.”

He acknowledged, however, that coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda, which carried out the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, could create significant delays in processing cargo at ports.

“If they carried out a synchronized attack at multiple ports at the same time, the first thought would be how many other ports are in jeopardy and the natural inclination would be to close all ports,” Hutchinson said. “The other option would be to increase inspections 100 percent or keep ships out of ports pending Coast Guard inspections.”

Edward Jay Goldberg, vice president of consumer and government affairs for Macy’s East, said in an interview after the conference that the antiterrorist measures have not slowed down the movement of goods from Asia and other regions to store shelves in the U.S.

“The retailer obviously is always concerned about the ability to receive goods and certainly we don’t want to see anything interrupt the flow,” Goldberg said. “At the same time, we are very much concerned about the real-time environment, with our stores opening every day in malls and downtown shopping areas, and I can’t say this should be given greater emphasis or that should be given greater emphasis because it’s all important.”

An alleged terrorist plot to blow up a shopping mall in the Columbus, Ohio, area is “the kind of thing that can shake the confidence of the consumer and shake the foundation of the retail industry,” said Goldberg. “The suburban mall is the economic and social center of our communities, and if people become afraid that it’s not a safe place to go, I don’t have to tell you what that means for us.”