- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Major American retailers are demanding that the U.S. Customs Service abandon a proposal to collect and make public detailed information on their cargo 24 hours before it leaves foreign ports headed for the United States.
The retailers companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot, which import billions of dollars in merchandise each year from around the world are complaining that the rule will inflict heavy costs on their supply operations.
They also cautioned customs that allowing open access to the data would give thieves greater opportunity to steal cargo and terrorists opportunities to use the trading system to plan a devastating terrorist attack.
"They can study trade flows and cargo descriptions in a way that makes it easier for them to steal cargo, or conceal contraband or weapons of mass destruction," the companies wrote customs on Sept. 5 in comments sent by their trade group, the International Mass Retail Association.
U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner has placed a heavy emphasis on getting this information in advance as part of a worldwide plan to make commerce more secure. The data now arrives at customs four days before arriving in the United States, while the cargo is at sea.
Customs agents, who are being stationed at major ports overseas, would be able to examine the data and order searches of suspicious shipments.
"We need to have it on a running basis, before the containers are loaded at a foreign port," Mr. Bonner said.
Customs asked for feedback by yesterday on the proposed regulations, which could take effect this month.
Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who specializes in commerce-security issues, said Mr. Bonner appears determined to push the rule through over the businesses' complaints. Mr. Flynn played down the opposition, comparing it to automakers' complaints about safety and emissions standards 30 years ago.
"If you set the standard, people will find a way to comply," he said.
Manifests, which are public documents filed by the shipping companies, do not detail the contents of a shipment and frequently carry general descriptions such as "freight of all kinds." The new rules would require data to be much more specific.
Robin Lanier, a consultant to the retailers, said that theft and insurance rates would rise under the new rule because thieves would be able to locate high-value cargo more easily.
Retailers who rely on imported goods also believe that cargo would have to be stored in ports until all manifest information is collected, which would inflict heavy costs and impose delays on supply chains. Retailers often keep only a 15-day supply of goods on hand, so even a few days of storage would disrupt business.
"It flies in the face of just-in-time delivery," Ms. Lanier said.
The retailers' association said it was willing to share the information with customs, but demanded the creation of a system that would protect confidential business data.
Ocean carriers, which are mostly foreign-owned, offered extensive comments to customs on how to adapt the regulation for practical use.
But their industry association, the Washington-based World Shipping Council, urged customs to recognize that it is attempting a massive overhaul of how international trade is conducted.
"The government may determine that this proposal is necessary for security reasons, but it should do so only with the understanding that it will delay commerce, it will significantly increase carrier and shipper costs, and it will require trade processes to change significantly," the council wrote in its comments.


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