Postal Service may be exempted from e-filing rule

The Homeland Security Department is considering excusing the Postal Service from meeting a new regulation designed to strengthen port security.

In December, the department's Customs and Border Protection Bureau (CBP) plans to implement a new regulation requiring all air, sea, rail and truck carriers to electronically file information on their cargo before arrival or departure from the United States to try to prevent any high-risk threats related to terrorist activity.

But the Postal Service "may or may not be included within the scope of the proposed rule," according to the agency's economic analysis, which would exempt an estimated 30 million letters and parcels the Postal Service ships to foreign destinations per year. The border agency predicted that if it required the Postal Service to comply, the service would incur costs of $4 to $6 per parcel, for a total annual impact of $120 million to $140 million.

The Postal Service "was not addressed in this regulation in anticipation that CBP will continue to work with [the service]. ... That remains an ongoing effort," said Erlinda Byrd, an agency spokeswoman.

In comments to the border agency, the Air Courier Conference of America (ACCA), which represents the express-delivery service industry that competes directly with the Postal Service, bemoaned an exemption for the Postal Service. "Since the stated purpose of this regulation is to enable CBP to identify high-risk cargo and protect national security, ACCA believes that shipments carried by all entities should be covered under the regulation," the comments said.

Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said he does not see a gaping weakness in an exemption for the Postal Service.

"It's not clear to me what the advantage would be to a terrorist to mail something out of the United States," Lewis said, adding that while normal U.S. mail poses a threat, "there are a lot more exploitable vulnerabilities for terrorists before they have to relay on the Postal Service."

But Bruce McConnell, a former information technology and security official at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), agreed that the exemption poses a security risk.

"Miscreants will find the hole in any security system," he said. "If you have a tall fence around your property but one low spot, that's where the trespassers will come in. You need uniform policy if you want a successful security program."

ACCA also argued that exempting the Postal Service "could result in a significant shift in volume to the Postal Service, which would further erode the [border agency's] national security goal."

The agency conceded the competitive edge it would give the Postal Service by waiving the requirement. Requiring the postal agency "to provide the same data elements as express carriers in the same timeframe would eliminate one key element of disparate treatment, effectively leveling the playing field between these two exporting entities and bringing both parties into more equal business-operating practices," the agency's economic analysis read.

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