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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

GAO: CBP’s Maritime Security Programs Were Impacted by COVID-19

During the course of its review, GAO found that CSI officers left the Port of Shanghai in April 2021, and the Port of Shenzhen, both in China, in October 2021. Because of visa restrictions, CSI has not been able to replace the officers at these two ports. There have been no CSI officers at either of these ports since April 2021 and October 2021, respectively.

Maritime cargo can present security concerns, as individuals have used cargo containers to smuggle narcotics, stowaways, and other contraband. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has developed programs that focus resources on identifying U.S.-bound cargo shipments that may be at high risk of transporting terrorist weapons or other contraband and examining those shipments. 

The Government Accountability Office has found that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted two of CBP’s key maritime cargo security programs—the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT) program. 

CSI officers largely work from foreign ports and were subject to COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing requirements that varied by location. Overall, the COVID-19 restrictions led to some changes in work practices and operational procedures. In particular, CSI officers at many CSI ports began to telework in early 2020. The length of time they teleworked varied by CSI location based on local COVID conditions and restrictions. In addition, a number of CSI ports amended operational procedures. This included coordinating examinations of high-risk, U.S.-bound cargo shipments with host country officials via email and telephone rather than in-person. In some instances, CSI relied on CBP staff in the U.S. to conduct the cargo examinations.

GAO was satisfied that a number of CSI locations already had contingency plans in place for CSI officers to telework from their residences as a result of prior weather-related emergencies or civil unrest. As a result, CSI was able to implement telework schedules for CSI officers that were tailored to the varied COVID-19 restrictions in place across the CSI locations.

CSI officials told the government watchdog that while the amended work practices and operational procedures that CSI officers implemented allowed them to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, they are not contemplating any changes to CSI officers’ in-person work requirements moving forward. The officials noted that they value face-to-face interactions and collaboration with their host country counterparts and prefer to be able to directly observe and participate in cargo examinations, as authorized by the host countries.

During the course of its review, GAO found that CSI officers left the Port of Shanghai in April 2021, and the Port of Shenzhen, both in China, in October 2021. Because of visa restrictions, CSI has not been able to replace the officers at these two ports. There have been no CSI officers at either of these ports since April 2021 and October 2021, respectively. CSI has shifted targeting responsibility for these two ports to the National Targeting Center-Cargo. As of June 2022, all U.S.-bound cargo from Shanghai and Shenzhen continued to be remotely targeted and examined. CSI officials stated that while CSI officers have not been present at these ports since 2021 to conduct examinations of high-risk cargo shipments before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound vessels, CSI has been able to mitigate the impact of these limitations. For example, CSI has relied on staff at the National Targeting Center-Cargo to target high-risk, U.S.-bound cargo shipments from Shanghai and Shenzhen. CSI has also coordinated with the respective ports of destination in the U.S. to examine any high-risk cargo shipments upon arrival, according to CSI officials.

CTPAT supply chain security specialists are largely based in domestic field offices, but they were also subject to COVID restrictions that required them to telework during 2020 and 2021. In addition, COVID travel restrictions meant that CTPAT supply chain security specialists—could not conduct such visits in-person from March 2020 to early April 2022. Traditionally, these specialists traveled to conduct in-person validations and periodic revalidations of CTPAT members’ supply chain security practices. As a result, the CTPAT program was not able to keep pace with required security validations and revalidations of members’ supply chain security practices, which led to backlogs. To address the backlogged security validations, the CTPAT program trained additional staff and prioritized completing security validations dating from 2020 and 2021. To address the backlogged security revalidations, the CTPAT program developed procedures for conducting virtual security revalidations using videoconferencing technology. While these efforts were still ongoing at the time of GAO’s review, the watchdog said the CTPAT program had made progress in decreasing the backlogged security validations and revalidations.

Earlier this week. GAO testified on the issue of maritime cargo reporting and said Congress and others lack visibility into federal agencies’ cargo shipments, including the amounts shipped on U.S.-flag vessels, due to a lack of data. 

Federal laws, regulations, and policies require that when cargo owned or financed by the federal government is shipped internationally, certain percentages of that cargo be carried on vessels registered in the United States (U.S.-flag vessels). Such cargo preference requirements are designed to ensure the industry, among other things, has sufficient vessels and trained mariners to supplement the cargo-carrying capacity of military ships during times of war or national emergency.

The Maritime Administration (MARAD), within the Department of Transportation, monitors federal agencies’ cargo volumes to calculate the percentage shipped on U.S.-flag vessels. However, MARAD has not publicly reported this data since 2013, citing a 2008 law which eliminated the statutory reporting requirement.

According to data received by MARAD, total government-wide cargo volumes in fiscal year 2020 were 27 percent lower than in fiscal year 2012, and U.S.-flag volumes were 36 percent lower. 

GAO said MARAD has taken steps to identify potential instances of noncompliance with cargo preference requirements and collaborated with federal agencies and contractors to encourage compliance. However, the watchdog is concerned that MARAD has not taken enforcement actions. For example, MARAD has notified federal agencies and contractors about potential contract violations, and has encouraged shipping additional cargo on U.S.-flag vessels. However, according to MARAD officials, MARAD has not taken any enforcement actions, in part, because it has not developed regulations necessary to take such action. MARAD has not developed regulations primarily due to challenges in reaching consensus with other agencies on how to implement cargo preference requirements. 

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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