U.S. eyes privatizing cargo security work

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Homeland Security officials are looking to have private companies validate the security procedures under which cargo travels from foreign ports into U.S. terminals.

The program, which would give speedier entry to U.S. ports to ships and suppliers that meet the security standards, is now in the hands of 80 Homeland Security inspectors who have to plow through more than 10,000 applicants.

Although Homeland Security plans to hire an additional 40 inspectors in the coming months, the department also is looking to outsource to private companies some of its duties, in particular the validation process, which has dragged for years and involves on-site inspections of ships and cargo abroad.

More than 5,800 companies currently get some shortcuts by being “certified.” But only 1,545 have been “validated” to receive the full benefits of the program after first-hand inspections, such as fewer on-site checks at U.S. ports, said Jayson P. Ahern, assistant commissioner of field operations for Customs and Border Protection.

Mr. Ahern says the manpower shortage has the department exploring other options, including contracting the work to the private sector.

“I am not happy where our progress has been,” Mr. Ahern told a House panel last week.

The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) was initiated after the September 11 attacks to secure the cargo chain from port to port. Companies that open their doors to full security inspections get fewer checks at ports of arrival and faster processing.

Although critical of the program’s sluggish pace, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat, endorsed the idea of outsourcing.

“We are relying on companies that we haven’t even gone out to check to see if in fact they have the security things in place that you said they had,” says Miss Sanchez, ranking member of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on economic security, infrastructure protection and cybersecurity.

“I mean, you have 80 people that can’t possibly check these 10,000 companies. What about having somebody else check them?” said Miss Sanchez, who formally asked the agency to consider privatizing the work.

“We have, to this point, resisted the notion of third-party validators. We think it is a responsibility that we should be doing in the government, and not necessarily contracting it out. However, given the current situation … we want to have more parties involved with a trusted program. We want to have the largest corporations in the industry, the importers reaching back to their suppliers, vendors, manufacturers, putting levels of security in place throughout the supply chain,” Mr. Ahern said.

“So perhaps we are coming to a point in time where, in certain environments with certain countries that may not be of a significant risk, maybe [using] the third-party validator has a [place] for us. So we are going to be evaluating that with new eyes, but to this point we have been opposed to it,” Mr. Ahern said.

Suzanne Trevino, a spokeswoman for CBP, said yesterday that her agency is looking at the prospect of hiring third parties to validate security.

“At this point, the only thing we will say is that we will look at it, but we have not started a formal process. We don’t have the resources to complete the validation necessary or that Congress wants,” Mrs. Trevino said.

Last March, the Government Accountability Office criticized the program and cited weaknesses in the validation process, which it said “is not rigorous enough to achieve its stated purpose, which is to ensure that the security procedures outlined in members’ security profiles are reliable, accurate and effective.”

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