CBP considering outsourcing security validations

By: | at 08:00 PM | International Trade  

Agency’s C-TPAT program criticized

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

Under fire for failing to exploit the full potential of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection recently proclaimed its willingness to consider hiring private-sector contractors to perform security validations under the program. Jayson Ahern, CBP’s assistant commissioner for field operations, told the House Homeland Security Economic Security Subcommittee that the agency does not have enough inspectors to validate the security programs of all of the thousands of C-TPAT applicants.

Ahern’s Congressional testimony on March 16 came days after the Government Accountability Office released a report critical of the program’s validation process. Apparently, calling in private sector resources has been under consideration at CBP for some time. Congressional cargo security advocates are trying to provide additional funds to enhance C-TPAT. C-TPAT is a voluntary program in which members commit to making security improvements in exchange for reduced CBP scrutiny of their inbound shipments.

At issue is CBP’s validation process, a third step which comes after benefits have already been awarded. The first step involves review of applicants’ self-reported information while the second is a vetting process to assess importers’ compliance with customs regulations. Validation is designed to verify C-TPAT members’ implementation of security measures and to determine their eligibility for continuation of benefits.

The GAO found several weaknesses in CBP’s validation process, which, according to its report, ‘compromise CBP’s ability to provide an actual verification that supply chain security measures in C-TPAT members’ security profiles are accurate and are being followed.’ The GAO concluded that validations are ‘not rigorous enough’ and, ‘are not considered independent audits.’ ‘CBP has no written guidelines to indicate what scope of effort is adequate for validation,’ the report said. Further, the GAO found, ‘CBP has given up on its original goal to validate all members.’

‘We talked about using outside contractors off and on as a possibility but I don’t remember actually sending out a proposal,’ said Robert Bonner, the former CBP commissioner, in an exclusive interview with the AJOT. Bonner is currently a Los-Angeles-based partner in the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.

‘Given the number of companies that have applied to become certified members of C-TPAT, I know that there is a backlog in terms of validation,’ Bonner continued. ‘It could be potentially useful for CBP to have some parts of this work done through private sector companies.’

Bonner noted that, as of three months ago when he left CBP, about one-third of the six thousand companies involved with C-TPAT had their security plans validated by the agency. ‘It is also important to understand that the process of validation goes back to the loading docks of applicants’ overseas vendors and manufacturers,’ he added. ‘There are also increasing numbers of applicants for the program, so it is not unexpected that CBP would have to play catch up.’

Bonner emphasized, however, that he is against the wholesale outsourcing of the validation process. ‘I do think it is important for CBP to have its own internal cadre of supply chain security experts,’ he said. ‘C-TPAT is a dynamic program, and over time, security requirements will be ratcheted up. A certain core number of verifiers should be honest to goodness employees.’

Brian Goebel, Bonner’s former deputy, and now principal in the Washington-based strategic consultancy Sentinel HS Group, sees several potential approaches towards integrating private sector participation in the validation process. One model, the least likely in Goebel’s view, would be to ‘turn the validation process over to the private sector and let them go do it.’

A second model would have Customs draw on private sector resources to bring people on to augment the current validation workforce. ‘The


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