Homeland Security officials accused of 'foot dragging' on port security

CAMDEN, N.J.--Despite some advances in port security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, lawmakers have "serious concerns" about how customs and border officials at the Homeland Security Department target inbound commerce, a House subcommittee member said on Tuesday.

"Foot dragging and unresponsive answers ... often punctuate" security efforts, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said here during a field hearing on port security conducted by the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

DeGette criticized the department's directorate on customs and border protection for not addressing problems outlined in a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the agency, blaming "current customs bureaucracy" for the inaction.

Rather than fixing shortcomings, she said, those people involved in the process often "obstruct" the facts. "It is our obligation and duty to vigorously examine [the directorate's] programs" to protect national security and ensure that the agency is not wasting tax dollars, DeGette said. "We cannot afford to engage in feel-good empty gestures."

Subcommittee Chairman James Greenwood, R-Pa., said the directorate "has made notable efforts to improve our ability to target and inspect high-risk sea cargo" but added that while "searching 100 percent of sea cargo containers is not possible ... the subcommittee and GAO have identified several weaknesses" with port security.

The directorate "does not have a national system for reporting and analyzing inspection statistics, and the data provided to us by ports were generally not available by risk level, were not uniformly reported, were difficult to interpret and were incomplete," said Richard Stanta, director of homeland security and justice at GAO. "Further, space limitations and safety concerns about inspection equipment constrained the ports in their utilization of screening equipment, which has affected the efficiency of examinations."

Homeland Security's inspector general is examining cargo-inspection procedures and how the directorate reports statistics at several ports, said Richard Berman, the assistant inspector general for audits. "Generally, we found that overall guidelines on what constituted an examination and what procedures and steps should be taken in different types of examinations were unclear and subject to different interpretation," he said.

Next year, he added, the inspector general's office will review the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program, which involves arrangements with the trade community in order to exchange ideas, concepts and information.

A directorate official downplayed the perceived problems. C-TPAT is intended to "devise a strategy to protect the global trading network or supply chain," said Charles Bartoldus, head of the directorate's national targeting center. The next effort will be to "make sure our C-TPAT partners are honoring their commitments," he said.

CSI seeks to "push our nation's borders outwards by screening cargo overseas and working jointly with host-nation customs agencies on exams prior to landing U.S.-bound cargo," Bartoldus said.