Every year, ships from abroad deliver more than 7 million cargo containers to America’s seaports. Framed in steel, standard oceangoing containers typically come in 20- and 40-foot lengths and can carry payloads weighing up to 60,000 pounds. They are each a model of logistical efficiency — and collectively a security nightmare for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
Two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Customs views ocean cargo containers as prime vehicles for smuggling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) into the United States. Accordingly, the bureau has stepped up inspections of incoming containers from 2 percent to 4 percent of the total. “We look at 100 percent of those that are high risk,” says Jayson P. Ahern, assistant commissioner, office of field operations. But that still leaves millions of containers unscrutinized.
The nightmare extends to the land and air. Millions of shipments stream annually through the Canadian and Mexican borders via truck and rail; millions more arrive by plane. Clearly, making sure that WMDs or other terrorist weapons do not enter the country is too difficult a task for the government to handle alone. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. The detection of a WMD in a container at a U.S. port would cause significant disruptions at the borders — and the detonation of such a device would be catastrophic, by any measure.
That’s why in the months since 9/11, Customs has launched a number of antiterrorism programs that solicit the cooperation of foreign governments and U.S. businesses. The oft-stated goal is to “push the borders back,” extending a zone of security to the places where imports originate. One such program is the Container Security Initiative (CSI), in which Customs officers are deployed in foreign ports to help identify and screen high-risk containers. Another is the 24-hour rule, which requires carriers to submit a detailed manifest to Customs 24 hours before cargo is loaded on a U.S.-bound ship. (That rule is being amended to include advance manifests for air, truck, and rail shipments.)
For importers, perhaps the most significant antiterrorism initiative is voluntary: the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT). Companies that apply for C-TPAT certification must assess the security of their supply chains and harden any weak links. A C-TPAT member can expect fewer inspections and expedited processing at the border — in effect, a fast lane through Customs.
While the government’s determination to push borders back will doubtless add costs and delays, some experts say they haven’t seen much disruption of international supply chains so far. “I don’t hear any major importers say that the 24-hour rule has put a severe crimp in their inventory systems,” says C. Randal Mullett, director of government relations at CNF Inc., parent company of logistics service provider Menlo Worldwide. “The steamship companies say it has impacted them and their customers, but it hasn’t been a disaster.”
Meanwhile, those who have done the C-TPAT self-assessment say that in the process, they have identified ways to slash supply-chain costs, reduce theft, and eliminate unnecessary payments of duties and taxes. Also, being C-TPAT certified is a prerequisite for Customs’s Importer Self-Assessment program, whose benefits include removal from Customs audit pools.