Monday, April 18, 2005

Safety in Numbers

Today, Customs (the agency) is all about securing the borders against terrorist attack. There are plenty of good reasons for this, the most notable having occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. But, even before that, the relevance of traditional customs duty collection activity (and the related recovery litigation) was threatened. The main culprit before 9/11 was the continuous trend downward for duty rates. As the total duty collected decreases, the interest in expensive audits, investigations and court battle wanes.

But the new focus brings new questions. Primarily: are we safer now than before? I'm not sure anyone knows. Anthrax in the mail and snipers in Virginia seem like decent models for terrorists seeking to avoid Customs.

Obviously, Customs can't go around telling the world (and, therefore, the bad guys) exactly what they are doing to sure up the border. I suppose there is a lot going on in the background. But, here is what we see in the foreground:

This program seeks to have companies volunteer as "partners" to protect us all through a self secured supply chain. The idea is to get companies to voluntarily agree to take reasonable steps to make sure suppliers, carriers, warehouses, distributors and everyone else in the global supply chain is secure. Customs is asking participants to take steps relating to access to facilities, personnel checks, shipping and receiving operations, carrier security and information systems. All of these things should be addressed through written procedures and implemented in real action.

This all makes sense and is probably a good thing. In return, C-TPAT members are supposed to get faster clearance at the border. The actual infrastructure at the ports, however, is making that difficult. Right now, the benefits seem somewhat tenuous. Also, Customs recently tightened the rules and is requiring that C-TPAT members secure commitments from their unrelated business partners to either participate in C-TPAT or meet similar "criteria" for security. Anyone who fails to do so, might be kicked out of the program. It is starting to look a lot less voluntary.

This one is sort of a no-brainer except for the interesting questions it raises about sovereignty. Under CSI, U.S. Customs & Border Protection personnel are stationed at foreign sea ports to be involved in the review of cargo before it is shipped to the U.S. No one ever says this, but the idea is to have the bomb go off in Rotterdam rather than Raleigh.

Back in my days as a political science major in Urbana-Champaign (which was previously known as Champaing-Urbana), I learned that controlling one's borders is a primary indicia of statehood. A country that doesn't control its own borders can't claim to be fully sovereign. I guess the U.S. has worked this out with our CSI partners, because we now have inspectors in 18 countries.

Does it help? I can't see how it could not.

This is a deal we have worked with the Canadians and Mexicans to quicker truck clearance at the border. It requires that the importer be a C-TPAT participant and that the driver be specially licensed. Once that happens (along with sundry other requirements), the drivers get to bypass some of the slower aspects of waiting around for clearance.

Kudos to everyone for coming up with an program name with a meaningful acronym.

There are other things going on. One other program involves the transmission of cargo manifests to CBP before it is loaded on a conveyance. The exact time transmission varies depending on the mode of transport. For ships, it is 24 hours before loading. Hence, this is uniformly known as the "24 hour rule."

So, CBP is hard at work. And, as a tax payer and a citizen who chooses to let the government bear arms for me, I appreciate the effort to keep me safe. But . . . I wonder if it works. The 9/11 hijackers smuggled nothing other than themselves into the country and they did not do that in a cargo container. If the bad guys are here already, there is nothing Customs can do to prevent an attack.

Customs is making serious efforts at border security. Companies will generally volunteer to help in that effort. As one executive recently told me, they don't want to see their truck as the one being used as a missile or bomb. Plus, it is generally just the right thing to do.

Do you feel reassured?

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