Reaching Out to Government

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2003-09-09 Print this article Print

?"> <

Mysterious Manifests

Boyle already is active—or as active as hes allowed to be.

When it comes to working with Customs, for instance, collaboration is a one-way street. When asked how the department communicates with the port, Boyle says simply: "They dont … not unless they need our help."

So Boyle has taken communication into his own hands. First, he reached out to Tom OBrien, who was in charge of San Francisco field operations for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, until OBrien retired last month.

Boyle fought hard for Customs to relocate its Oakland offices into an old naval communications building on port land. That, OBrien says, allowed the agency to put all its staff in daily proximity with clerks and steamship company reps, so they will feel more comfortable calling if something seems amiss. An attempt to locate an outpost of the Oakland Police Department in a building across the street is still in the works.

"Rays not one of those camera-hungry guys whos got his eye on the next job," OBrien says. "He always tries to do the right thing."

Still, says OBrien, you can walk around and find shipments that appear suspicious—at any port, on any day. The manifests and the invoices might not agree, the containers might be damaged, or the importer might keep calling the steamship company, expressing "an undue interest" in the status of the shipment.

The hardest part is not sniffing out what "doesnt look right or feel right," OBrien says. The challenge is having the analysts, databases and systems to cut through oceans of data and figure out what those anomalies mean. Do you have an importer thats consistently trying to give you bad information? If so, why? Are they avoiding tariff or import requirements? Or are they in a larger conspiracy?

The manifest continues to be the fundamental source of data about whats in ships—the focal point around which Customs anti-terrorist efforts revolve.

All carriers are required to electronically ship Customs an accurate manifest that details the cargos weight, its ownership, its shipper, its buyer and its port of destination before a ship can enter a U.S. port and unload.

The manifest has been in use for at least 200 years, but the document isnt more secure or accurate today than when merchant mariners sailed in front of the trade winds in the 18th century. It was then, and is now, a formality based entirely on trust. The carrier assumes the shipper is honest and Customs has little choice but to believe the information is accurate.

Customs officials prefer not to dwell on this troubling fact, but Sam Banks, a former deputy commissioner with the agency, doesnt mince words: "[Carriers and shippers] can lie. Thats a weakness in the system."

After all, who is going to declare an illicit shipment of munitions, like missile launchers?

Next page: U.S. Customs current systems, processes and inability to share timely information.


Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel