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CBP’s Houston Seaport Needs Improved Documentation of High-Risk Shipment Waivers

Customs andBorder Protection’s (CBP) Houston Seaport—the fifth largest port for arriving containers and the largest petrochemical complex in nation—needs to improve its documentation of waivers and exceptions for examination of high-risk cargo shipments, according to an audit report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG).

The IG conducted a review of the Houston Seaport to ensure it complied with CBP’s Cargo Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System (CERTS) Port Guidance, and the National Maritime Targeting Policy (NMTP), which requires CBP officers to examine all high-risk containers that do not qualify for standard exception and ensure that all cargo examination data is accurately documented.

The IG determined that the Houston Seaport generally complied with CERTS Port Guidance and NMTP, but needs to improve its documentation of waivers and exceptions to mandatory examinations of high-risk cargo.

CBP can waive examination if a high-risk shipment meets a “standard exception” or an “articulable reason.” However, a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit stated there are no CBP-wide definitions for the standard exception categories, which raises the concern CBP may be waiving shipments that should be examined and examining shipments that could be waived.

As previously reported by Homeland Security Today, GAO reported in February that it found CBP did not properly record articulable reasons for waivers, limiting CBP’s ability to determine whether policy is being followed.

“Given that examining and waiving, if appropriate, high-risk shipments are critical aspects of CBP’s strategy, it is important for CBP to ensure that these practices are carried out consistently and that results of its targeters’ actions regarding the disposition of high-risk cargo shipments are recorded accurately,” GAO said.

CBP data shows the Houston Seaport processed 7, 192 high-risk cargo shipments in fiscal year 2013. Nearly 60 percent of those shipments were either a standard exception or the port director waived the mandatory examination requirement, so the shipments were not examined.

CBP officers document waivers using CERTS drop-down menus. Of the 53 port director waivers in the IG’s sample, officers failed to select an appropriate reason for 19 waivers. In addition, CBP did not select any reason for 2 waivers. While CBP is required to include the name of the official accountable for port director waivers, the name of the port director or designee in 52 of the 53 waivers reviewed was not included.

In addition, the CERTS drop-down menus also include options for each standard exception, but the menu was missing one exception, which accounted for 44 of the 88 standard exceptions in the IG’s sample. Consequently, CBP officers selected non-corresponding options.

“Proper documentation of port director waivers and exceptions to mandatory examinations of high-risk cargo shipments in CERTS may help facilitate management oversight, as well as accurate reporting of waiver and standard exception statistics,” the IG said.

The IG’s report also called for improved access controls over port director waiver approvals within CERTS, stating it “would help prevent waiving the mandatory examination of high-risk shipment that may threaten national security.”

The IG provided three recommendations to improve the documentation of waiver approvals and exceptions to mandatory examinations of high-risk cargo shipments. The IG recommended CBP develop oversight procedures to ensure CBP officers select the appropriate CERTS drop-down menu option for waiver reasons.In addition, the IG recommended the inclusion of the missing standard exception as an option in the CERTS drop-down menu.

CBP concurred with all three recommendations.

DHS’s Inspector General also recently reported in an audit report that last fiscal year CBP “did not effectively target and examine rail shipments entering the United States from Mexico and Canada,” and as a result, “CBP may … have failed to detect potential instruments of terrorism or dangerous materials from entering the United States."

Consequently, the IG reported, “We were unable to determine whether all high-risk shipments were examined in accordance with CBP policies.”

“Specifically,” the IG’s audit report stated, CBO Officers (CBPO) did not always target shipments using the mandatory Automated Targeting System (ATS) targeting criteria. CBPOs also did not always use the required radiation detection equipment to examine high-risk shipments.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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