GAO: Customs container inspection program has holes

U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs better processes to collect and assess data for an initiative to improve maritime cargo security, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Under the Container Security Initiative, which started in 2002, U.S. agents monitor the inspection of high-risk cargo at foreign ports bound for the United States. In fiscal 2007, CBP reached its target of operating the program in 58 foreign seaports. Eighty-six percent of all U.S.-bound containers pass through those seaports.

However, more and better performance measures are needed to determine if the program is effective, GAO said.

For example, Customs and Border Protection developed the CSI team evaluation, or CSITE, software tool to help standardize how inspectors record evaluations in the Container Security Initiative. The tool consists of a template of standard "yes" and "no" questions.

However, the tool is not being used consistently and that is hampering its effectiveness, GAO said. GAO found that evaluators typically left some of the questions blank, hampering use of the software tool for providing an overview of the container security program.

"With more complete information, collected in a consistent manner, CBP may be better able to determine how well Container Security Initiative teams are performing, what corrective actions may be needed to improve the program, or whether the CSI program is achieving its security goals," GAO said.

CSITE is supposed to eventually allow for systematic comparisons of performance among seaports. But the data is not being collected consistently and contradictory information is not being reconciled, GAO said.

In addition, there's a need for setting additional technical standards for determining how well the foreign seaports are performing the inspections. For example, there is no minimum technical criteria for equipment used in the inspections, and little information available on the equipment, people and processes deployed by the host governments, GAO said.

The container security program also suffers from manpower shortages and faces challenges in maintaining appropriate relationships with host governments, the report said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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