- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2017

Senators from both parties said Thursday they’re growing impatient with foreign postal services that do not provide electronic data to U.S. inspectors hoping to intercept packages that contain highly dangerous opioids.

International agreements make it difficult to bar the flow of packages from countries that don’t provide advanced data on what’s in the parcels, and refusing to accept their packages could mean they won’t accept ours, State Department officials testified Thursday.

But senators said they’re fed up with the steady and deadly flow of powerful synthetic opioids from clandestine labs in Asia to U.S. streets, so it might be time to set deadlines for countries struggling to catch up with the pace and high stakes of overseas commerce.

“We can’t continue like this. We need the electronic data, and we need it now,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican who authored legislation to crack down on the problem.

The inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service also said mail officials could do better on the home front, citing instances in which postal employees failed to present packages for screening to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at processing centers.

Fentanyl and other synthetics are at least 50 times more potent than heroin and making an already tragic opioid epidemic even worse, according to law enforcement.

The drugs are so dangerous that even accidental contact with the powders can cause an overdose.

A share of the drugs flow along common drug routes from Mexico, though some of it comes directly into the U.S. through the mail.

Unlike at private carriers, such as FedEx or UPS, agents at U.S. Customs and Border Protection often don’t receive electronic data on packages from foreign postal systems in advance, though it is steadily becoming more prevalent through pilot programs and a patchwork of pacts with individual countries.

Mr. Portman is pushing a bill that would require foreign shippers to describe who is sending packages through U.S. mail, and where the stuff is going, before the packages enter the country. That way, agents could better target illegal drug shipments.

His bill has 16 cosponsors, including seven Democrats and one independent.

Gregory Thome, a director at the State Department, said the government is trying to help postal services around the world provide the data, since refusing to accept packages without the data could flout agreements with the Universal Postal Union to accept international mail.

Yet many post offices in the developing world do not have internet connectively or even reliable sources of electricity, making it difficult to get electronic data operations off the ground.

“Few, if any, countries have the ability to require it for 100 percent of their mail requiring customs declarations,” he said.

Senators said developed countries don’t really have an excuse, while those that are struggling to implement a program might have to face a deadline at some point.

“China has electricity, and we know where this stuff is coming from,” Mr. Portman said.

Rep. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, said the most straightforward thing Congress could do would be to set a deadline with adequate lag time to let countries either comply or see their packages denied by the U.S.

“This seems to slip year after year,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat facing reelection next year, said the human toll is too great to not push for tougher negotiations.

“This is costing a pile of money and ruining a lot of lives,” Mr. Tester said. “I would just encourage you, the next time the (Universal Postal Union) meets, [to] buckle down and do it.

The U.S. Postal Service received about 627 million pieces of inbound international mail — about half were packages — in fiscal 2016, according to testimony.

Robert Cintron, vice president of network operations management for the U.S. Postal Service, said the share of inbound packages with electronic data has grown rapidly, from only about 1 percent in fiscal 2015 to 40-50 percent now. It’s also improved things by entering bilateral agreements with major countries to require more data.

Yet Tammy L. Whitcomb, acting inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service, said it found several problems with how inbound packages are processed.

Postal employees sometimes started processing packages before they were screened by Customs and Border Protection, and in some cases packages were not presented to customers as requested and sent directly into the mail stream.

She also said the two agencies don’t have a formal agreement on how packages should be processed.

“More effort is needed to quickly fix problems in the current process and to make sure CBP receives as much electronic customs data as possible,” Ms. Whitcomb testified.

Norman T. Schenk, vice president for global customs policy for the Universal Parcel Service (UPS), said his company provides electronic data on the millions of packages it handles.

He said the company has intercepted fentanyl at times, but likes to believe his company’s measures largely dissuade drug traffickers from trying to use it for their trade.

Like senators on the dais, he said it was alarming that advanced electronic data is not ubiquitous, noting he provided similar testimony to Congress exactly 17 years ago.

“Nothing tangible has changed,” Mr. Schenk said. “And it’s just moving at a snail’s pace.”

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