Cargoes Big Brothered before They Reach US Shores

Call it a security nightmare.

Fifteen million containers arrive in the United States each year on vessels from around the world. Before the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, only two percent of those containers were screened by US Customs. That rate has improved somewhat, US customs authorities, say, but not by much.

All that is about to change: On February 2, the US Customs Service will begin enforcing its ambitious 24-Hour Advance Manifest Rule designed to keep terrorists and their deadly cargo away from American shores.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s maritime sources have procured the new bible of guidelines for the US customs officer.

Under the new system, an ocean carrier’s manifest declarations will have to be submitted to US Customs either electronically or in paper form 24 hours prior to cargo lading of the vessel at a foreign port of origin.

All ocean cargo destined for the United States will be subject to the new regulations, including Foreign Cargo Remaining On Board (FROB) — foreign-to-foreign cargo which transits through a United States port, including Puerto Rico — U.S. military cargo and cargo aboard short-hauls or voyages.

In effect, US Customs will be able to know in advance the manufacturer, contents, size and weight of each shipment packed inside a container as well as the name of the receiving party.

The new rule is one of a series of security measures devised by US Customs commissioner Richard C. Bonner, a retired judge and former senior official in the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Bonner, who became customs commissioner just days before 9/11, grasped at once the changed role of US Customs. Overnight, the body had been catapulted to the forefront of national security for US citizens. Bonner held it was the duty of US Customs to keep the maritime terrorist threat at bay by means of novel arrangements for stringent cargo checks in foreign ports of origin, far from US shores.

As Bonner put it, “The border must be pushed outwards.”

At a hearing on security at US seaports held by the US senate committee on commerce, science and transportation last year, Bonner dramatized the threat of terrorists smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the United States in innocent- looking containers.

At the same hearing, held in Charleston, South Carolina, Bonner offered the first official US confirmation of the innovative al Qaeda smuggling tactic uncovered exclusively by DEBKAfile a year ago.

“Unfortunately,” he testified, “ocean-going cargo containers are susceptible to terrorist threat. You may recall the discovery by Italian authorities last October of a suspected al Qaeda operative, an Egyptian national, living inside a sea container. He was headed to the Canadian port of Halifax, with airport maps, security bridges and an airport mechanic’s credentials.”

US Customs is also pushing another initiative — the Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism, or C-TPAT. A cooperative endeavor with the overseas supplies and shipping community, C-TPAT aims to step up security throughout the global supply chain.

Participants sign an agreement that commits them to conduct a comprehensive self-assessment of supply chain security that encompasses the shipper, its office premises and employees, the carriers, suppliers and end-customers.


Voluntary – But Don’t Say No


The initiative was billed as voluntary, but, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s maritime sources report, firms doing business with US ports soon discovered that failure to sign up condemned their goods and carriers to the slow lane of Customs inspections.

Since C-TPAT was introduced in April 2002, more than 1,000 businesses have signed up, effectively creating a new international security standard. In addition, US authorities have announced a Customs Container Security Initiative (CSI) – a security databank for identifying and locating suspicious containers and pre-screening them before they arrive in the United States. CSI is designed to prevent the smuggling of terrorists or terrorist weapons in ocean-going cargo containers.

Launched by U.S. Customs in January 2002, CSI consists of four core elements: using automated information to identify and target high-risk containers, pre-screening those containers identified as high-risk before they arrive at U.S. ports, using detection technology to quickly pre-screen high-risk containers and using smarter, tamper-proof containers.

The initial objective is to implement CSI at the 20 key ports that send large volumes of cargo containers into the United States, in a way that will facilitate detection of potential security concerns at the earliest possible opportunity.

One element of CSI involves placing U.S. Customs inspectors at foreign seaports to target and pre-screen U.S.-bound cargo containers.

The first-line ports that have already joined CSI are: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Genoa, Yantian in China, Felixstowe in England, Algeciras in Spain, Kobe in Japan, Yokohama, and Laem Chabang in Thailand.

Eventually, cumbersome inspections at non-CSI ports will make shipping to the United States economically unfeasible.

US Customs is also introducing sophisticated computerized systems to handle the massive and continuous influx of imports-related data into the United States.

The Automated Manifest System, or AMS, will be the backbone of the 24-Hour Rule initiative. It will enable cargos to be channeled into the United States according to advance manifests.

The Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) should give US Customs details about each passenger arriving by air before a flight takes off for the United States from an overseas airport.

The Automated Commercial Environment system, enthusiastically backed by Bonner, is a sort of Big Brother. Scheduled to go on-line in 2006, it will enable the almost complete monitoring of every piece of cargo destined for the United States before it arrives at US shores.

In a survey conducted by The Journal of Commerce On Line, 62 percent of respondents said that enforcing the 24-hour rule will slow up commerce in the United States. US Customs, however, believes that, with shippers’ cooperation, security and the flow of goods into the United States will improve.

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