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CBP Needs Better Data on Disposition of High-Risk Imports, GAO Says

Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office states that U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs better information on the disposition of import shipments deemed to be high-risk. Given that examining and, if appropriate, waiving high-risk shipments are critical aspects of the layered security strategy CBP is employing in lieu of complying with the statutory mandate to ensure that 100 percent of U.S.-bound maritime cargo containers are scanned at foreign ports, the GAO states, it is important for CBP to ensure that these practices are carried out consistently and that the results of its targeters’ actions regarding the disposition of high-risk cargo shipments are recorded accurately.

According to the report, CBP targeters are generally required to hold high-risk shipments for examination unless evidence shows that an exam can be waived per CBP policy. In particular, targeters at advance targeting units, who are responsible for reviewing shipments arriving at ports within their respective regions, can waive an exam if they determine through research that (1) the shipment falls within a predetermined category (standard exception) or (2) they can articulate why the shipment should not be considered high-risk (articulable reason), such as an error in the shipment’s data.

The GAO found that while CBP did examine the vast majority of the shipments identified as high-risk (which accounted for less than one percent of total maritime shipments arriving in the U.S. from fiscal years 2009 through 2013), its data on the disposition of these shipments are not accurate and the data overstate the number of high-risk shipments. The GAO also determined that CBP’s targeting units are inconsistently applying criteria to make waiver decisions, meaning that some targeting units may be unnecessarily holding shipments for exam while others may be waiving shipments that should be examined. Further, some targeters were unaware of the guidance on articulable reason waivers and were incorrectly documenting these waivers. As a result, CBP cannot accurately determine the extent to which articulable waivers are being issued and used judiciously per CBP policy.

The report states that while CBP has efforts in place (e.g., self-inspections) to provide oversight of its policies on the disposition of high-risk shipments, these efforts are not sufficient. For example, the limited sample size of shipments used in self-inspections does not provide CBP with the best estimate of compliance at the national level. In addition, CBP’s method for calculating the compliance rate does not accurately reflect compliance because it is not based on the number of shipments sampled.

The GAO therefore recommends that CBP define standard exception waiver categories to help ensure that all high-risk shipments are being appropriately examined or waived, update and disseminate policy on documenting articulable reason waivers to aid in determining whether the targeting units are using such waivers judiciously, enhance its methodology for selecting shipments for self-inspection to allow improved identification of instances where policy is not being followed and implementation of corrective actions, and develop a better national estimate of compliance with maritime cargo targeting policies by calculating the compliance rate based on individual shipments rather than worksheets.

CBP responded that it plans to develop a definition for each of the standard exception waiver categories, will provide guidance on issuing waivers based on articulable reasons in its updated National Cargo Targeting Policy, has updated its self-inspection worksheet for the 2015 inspection cycle, and will develop the ability to generate reports on noncompliant high-risk shipments and require port directors or their designees to review the reports and take corrective actions based on noncompliant shipments.

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