Cargo industry questions department's ability to implement port security rule

The cargo industry is pleased the Homeland Security Department has delayed a final rule to increase security at U.S. ports, but officials said the newly established department does not have the manpower to implement the regulation when it does go into effect.

"It's good, [but] not implementing the rule would be better," said George Paul, who follows cargo security issues for the National Air Carrier Association (NACA). "There is whole lot of legwork to be done, and I don't think they're there yet."

He said industry groups have been lobbying the department on its proposed rule to require air, sea, rail and truck carriers to electronically file information about U.S. goods before they arrive in or depart from the country, and said the delay "looks" like the result of significant public comments the department received after it issued its proposal in July. Paul said the department recently sent a letter to NACA, saying that Homeland Security is reviewing industry comments.

A spokeswoman for the department's Customs and Border Protection Bureau said on Monday that Commissioner Robert Bonner received a final draft of the rule last Tuesday, but Homeland Security and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must approve the rule before publication, which the bureau said it hopes will be before the end of October.

Industry officials argued that the agency does not have the resources or expertise in house to implement the rule.

"[The bureau] is the only one that thinks they have their act together" to implement the rule, said Marian Ladner, a lawyer with the Straussberg and Price law firm that represents carriers. Ladner-who also sits on the Customs Operations Advisory Committee, a panel established by Congress to advise customs officials on the economic impact of their rules-said the agency does not have the computer systems to mine the data.

The proposed regulation-which the bureau said is required under the Maritime Transportation Security Act-aims to alert border-patrol agents of high-risk threats, including weapons of mass destruction. It would require a cyber and physical infrastructure, along with trained staff, to collect detailed electronic information before carriers leave or enter the United States. The agency plans to implement the rule no sooner than 90 days after it issues the final rule.

But industry officials said the agency is not following the intent of Congress, which they argue requires the agency to completely understand the economic impact on trade before implementing such a rule. "They refuse outreach to trade in a meaningful and timely fashion," Ladner said. "They don't know trade well enough to get the data they feel they need" to protect borders.

Paul said he would like the bureau to give the industry a "heads up" on what comments they are considering in the final rule and called for "working groups" to provide more feedback to the agency on the rule's financial burden to carriers before implementing it.