Thursday, March 19, 2009
The C-TPAT Bait and Switch
I have absolutely no doubt that C-TPAT, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, makes America a safer place. Every participating importer, carrier, warehouse, foreign manufacturer, etc. agrees to take reasonable steps to insure the safety of the supply chain. This means, for example, limiting the access to shipping containers, using secure container seals, and vetting truck drivers. Logic dictates that C-TPAT makes it more difficult for a terrorist organization to slip weapons, components of weapons, or even people into the supply chain of an unknowing importer. I am glad that Customs has this program and I appreciate the efforts of the voluntary participants.
My problem is the way Customs sells the program. I've had the opportunity to sit through lots of C-TPAT recruitment sessions and they all proceed along the same lines. First and foremost, there is the reminder that the horrors of September 11 are the origin of C-TPAT. This, of course, puts the audience into a somewhat angry, hawkish, patriotic mood, which is the natural reaction to being reminded of a recent terror attack on our home soil.
That is followed by images from London, Madrid, and now Mumbai.
We all agree; terrorism is evil.
But then there is a shift in the presentations. Customs shows the audience pictures from field enforcement seizures. These are mostly images from drug seizures. The pictures are very interesting and demonstrate the determination that drug cartels have to get their product into the U.S. We are shown modified modified gas tanks partly filled with drugs, individuals used as drug mules, and shipping containers with false walls behind which drugs are stashed.
Customs also shows graphic images involving human smuggling. A famous picture is of a woman literally hidden inside the dashboard of a car. In another, a man has somehow molded himself into a car seat. A slide shows seized explosives found in a child's backpack.
Lastly, to bring the message home, we see video. At a recent presentation, I saw video of an improvised explosive device engulfing what appeared to be a U.S. Army vehicle in Iraq or Afghanistan. The video was shot from inside the vehicle. It ends with an image of a shattered windshield and the sound of machine gun fire. A second video was introduced with a slide showing a U.S. land border crossing but then cuts to video of a checkpoint that again appears to be in Iraq or Afghanistan. A large truck approaches the checkpoint and then explodes in a huge fireball and massive shock wave.
We all understand the possible human horror and economic havoc that an attack in a U.S. port or inland point could produce. Everyone wants to work to prevent that. The companies taking voluntary part in C-TPAT understand the risks and have enlisted in the home front effort in the war on terror.
So why, does Customs and Border Protection have to sell C-TPAT so wrongheadedly? Not one of the shocking images used in these presentations appeared to be of a commercial shipment in which the importer was not part of the conspiracy. The driver of the car clearly knew the woman was in the dashboard. The person accompanying the child across the border knew the explosives were in the backpack. These are not the threats that C-TPAT is intended to and most likely does in fact address.
C-TPAT focuses on commercial shippers and reduces the risk that an unknown or unauthorized third party uses that supply chain as a means of delivering a weapon of mass destruction. That is wholly different than a drug cartel using a poor person as a human drug mule.
If Customs really wants to effectively sell C-TPAT to companies not presently participating and wants participating companies to understand the value of their commitment, it should change its pitch. CBP needs to better recognize that it is usually speaking to a sophisticated business audience that wants to help Customs in its counter-terrorism role. If there are examples of Customs and Border Protection interdicting drugs, weapons, or people from commercial shipments where the importer was not involved in the criminal activity, those are the examples the trade needs to see. As it is, I fear CBP is undermining its own credibility. Personally, I watch these presentations and come away with the distinct impression that Customs is playing a bait and switch game.
C-TPAT is an important element in our national anti-terrorism strategy. It should not take much to sell it as such. By having companies voluntarily secure their own supply chain, CBP has the opportunity to focus its resources on the risky shipments. That needs to be the message. As it is, CBP is just showing pictures that don't seem to relate to the audience.
UPDATE: Does this story about Union Pacific prove me wrong? No, because my point is about the way CBP markets the program, not the program itself. The story does show that Customs want carriers to be responsible for what is in their conveyances. I'm not sure what UP can do other than work with its Mexican partners to try and secure the rail yards. Given the environment in Mexico at the moment, I would not want to be the guy having to be on the lookout for drug smugglers.