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

.S. Customs Inability to Share Information">

Customs does have a logging system—albeit based on an aging and inflexible computing platform—on which it can try to verify a manifest.

Customs main information system, the Automated Commercial System, though, is in the process of being overhauled. A $1.2 billion modernization of the agencys 18-year-old mainframe system, overloaded by a 45% increase in imports since 1996, wont be finished until 2006.

In the meantime, Customs will not receive the kind of detailed analysis it now needs. The system was set up around a ships port of entry, so broad-based information on where a container has come from and where it is going—how it fits into some companys supply chain—is currently not available, says Banks. Information from one port simply cannot be correlated with other ports or other shipments. Customs cannot electronically share suspicions about a shipment with the Coast Guard and other government agencies—or port managers like Boyle—which would allow them to build a clear picture of the cargo, ship and crew.

But this is the system on which Customs runs its Automated Targeting System (ATS)—a trio of databases in Virginia that scrubs manifests for anomalies against 1,000 weighted rules and helps the agency decide what cargoes warrant further attention.

On a recent sunny morning in July, OBrien is supervising five containers pulled out of the regular flow of traffic and lined up end-to-end by the waterside in a terminal yard at the Port of Oakland. The containers have been selected by ATS for closer inspection. ATS looks primarily for oddities. For example, the system recently noticed that an entire container of soap coming into Southern California was being delivered to a single apartment. Customs inspectors opened the shipment—and instead found a load of drugs.

Learn more on how the U.S. Customs Commissioner is fighting terror by telling business leaders to batten down their supply chains.


The containers pulled at Oakland are to be inspected by one of two new Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems machines. The central features of these are scanners mounted on trucks, whose gamma rays can "see" through six inches of steel. Pointed at and crawling along the sides of a container, the scanners produce an image of the contents in less than a minute. By contrast, agents inspecting a container by hand would take four to six hours.

As the inspection truck drives slowly forward and the scanner moves across the containers walls, black and gray shapes of cargo emerge on the computer screen inside the truck. One, whose manifest is labeled "oil field equipment," is leaking—a potential biohazard. But the container has a hole at the top where rain could get in. The leakage is water.

The other containers manifest is labeled "personal effects." Its impossible to determine whats inside—other than partially filled boxes—even after lightening and darkening and tilting the image. OBrien says the container will be opened, and the shippers name run against more databases. What is found in the container will be classified information.

Still, Customs is not scanning as many containers at Oakland as it would like.

This is a good day—Customs will scan 100 to 150 containers of the 1,000 that move through the port. A really good day means 200 containers get scanned. And if unions agree gamma radiation is safe enough to allow workers to get close, the port could locate scanners at terminal yard gates and hit 300 to 500 containers as they pass by on trucks.

Even now, Oakland is doing better than other ports. Scanning 100 containers means the port is able to scan around 10% of the containers Customs receives every day. Ports without the machines inspect somewhere between 2% and 5% of containers.

This only heightens Customs efforts to improves its computer systems and institute new inspection programs—such as the Container Security Initiative, which calls for Customs agents to be posted at key foreign ports to scout for high-risk containers.

Of course, says OBrien, "no system is foolproof."

Next page: Whos on board and a rejection of a better alarm system.


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