- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2002

American importers and sea carriers will have to rethink the way they operate under a new rule from the U.S. Customs Service. The rule which takes effect today, but which will not be enforced immediately applies to cargo shipped in containers. It requires ocean carriers to document what is on board a vessel 24 hours before leaving a foreign port.
Under old rules, carriers simply had to send customs a manifest prior to docking in the United States.
The customs rule is part of a post-September 11 package to improve safety at sea and at ports while maintaining the flow of goods that pour into the country daily.
"This will fundamentally change how we receive our cargo worldwide," said John Hyde, the director of security for Maersk Sealand, one of the world's largest ocean carrier companies. It has more than 250 container vessels.
"It creates a major change but it's not something we can't adjust to," Mr. Hyde said.
The 24-hour rule is a major shift because traditionally, carriers do not know precisely what will be on board their vessels prior to leaving port. Just-in-time delivery, late changes from suppliers or importers, and the last-minute nature of some shipments mean that the details often are sorted out while under way.
Importers and carriers have been following closely the new requirements by customs as the government agency looks to protect the United States from terrorists.
In addition to the 24-hour manifest rule, the agency is expanding and implementing a Cargo Security Initiative that has American agents screen cargo at foreign ports, a Free and Secure Trade program that screens trucks crossing the border with Canada, and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, a program that has about 1,000 companies working to secure supply chains and, in return, get faster processing from the government.
Customs also is moving from the U.S. Treasury Department to the new Department of Homeland Security.
The customs programs have one thing in common: pushing the zone of security farther away from U.S. territory, according to U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner.
"I mean having a supply chain that adds security earlier," Mr. Bonner said during a symposium earlier this month.
The stakes are high. About 90 percent of world cargo moves by container, and nearly half of all incoming trade to the United States ranked by value arrives on board ships, according to customs figures. Almost 6 million containers are offloaded at U.S. seaports each year.
"AI Qaeda and other terrorist organizations pose an immediate and substantial threat. And the threat is not just to harm and kill American citizens; it is a threat to damage and destroy the U.S. and the world economy," customs officials said in outlining the 24-hour rule.
Companies, especially big importers such as retail chains, reacted with concern to the new proposals, but most do not want to criticize programs that the government says will protect against terrorism. And several groups said that customs has listened to industry objections.
Customs reported that it significantly amended the original regulation based on industry comments.
"When customs presented the rule, everybody hyperventilated," said Stephen E. Flynn, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' homeland security task force. "And there are real issues that need to be worked out. But what's your alternative? The status quo is unacceptable."
Ports are vulnerable to terrorists, and customs needs information early to process it effectively, he said.
One outstanding issue, though, is whether customs can effectively manage the data. Technologically, "customs is still in the dark ages," Mr. Flynn said.
The information is supposed to flow through a National Targeting Center based in the District. The center can deem certain shipments high-risk and alert foreign authorities or U.S. personnel overseas to inspect a vessel.
The agency is allowing 60 days to work out the kinks. During that time, it will not penalize companies that do not comply. After 60 days, the agency can issue fines and delay permits to unload a vessel.
In the interim, importers and carriers have to adjust.
"Post-9/11, we've had to be a lot more aggressive and there's a whole lot of things we've done," Mr. Hyde said. "Still, we're going to have to do more."


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