Two GAO reports and a 20-month congressional investigation into the department's efforts to secure cargo and containers found that it is inspecting less than 1 percent of containers overseas and 17.5 percent of high-risk cargo.
Also, the department has certified importers for expedited inspections without a thorough validation of their supply chain security. And technology to screen cargo and containers at ports overseas are "untested" and of "unknown quality," said the panel in a release announcing the findings.
"Ensuring the security of our global supply chain is critical to homeland security since maritime trade accounts for over 25 percent of the U.S. [gross domestic product] and many experts believe that terrorists are likely to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of the global supply chain for their nefarious purposes," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee, which conducted the investigation.
The GAO, U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner and former Homeland Security officials are slated to testify Thursday about the issue before the subcommittee.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the department started two international programs to secure shipments entering the country without adversely affecting the flow of commerce.
Companies belonging to the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program voluntarily work with the department to bolster security of their goods in exchange for expedited inspections. C-TPAT importers are seven times less likely to undergo inspections of their cargo, according to a release by the subcommittee.
The second program, Container Security Initiative, enables U.S. officials to inspect high-risk containers at foreign ports before the ship departs for U.S. ports. The officials have deployed detection equipment in 36 foreign ports, but GAO found the department has "limited assurance that the equipment in use can successfully detect all" weapons of mass destruction.
House Energy and Commerce ranking member John Dingell, D-Mich., Wednesday criticized the department for failing to meet expectations.
"The commissioner of Customs has assured us repeatedly that they have in place a 'layer-in-depth' system to protect the nation from terrorists using shipping containers to smuggle WMDs into the U.S." Dingell said. "Yet each time we peel back a layer we find there is less than promised."
The GAO recommended the department bolster its process for validating importers by establishing performance measures, goals and adequate internal controls to manage the program. For the container security program, the GAO recommended the department draft technical requirements for the detection equipment overseas.
The Investigations Subcommittee plans to hold follow-up hearings this fall to review the department's progress in implementing GAO's recommendations.