OIG: CBP and TSA Need to Address Air Cargo Screening Program Weaknesses

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security has released the results of an audit into high-risk cargo entering the United States.

Air cargo shipments can pose significant threats to national security. Consequently, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) established the Air Cargo Advanced Screening (ACAS) program with the goal of identifying and preventing high-risk cargo from entering the country. 

The audit found that CBP did not always prevent air carriers from transporting high-risk air cargo from foreign airports into the United States. Federal regulations prohibit air carriers from transporting cargo on U.S.-bound aircraft until they resolve all ACAS referrals for air cargo shipments deemed high risk. Although CBP identified and targeted high-risk cargo shipments, air carriers did not fully resolve 138 (45 percent) of 309 randomly sampled referrals from fiscal years 2017 and 2018. This occurred, OIG said, because neither CBP nor TSA developed adequate policies and procedures to ensure air carriers resolved referrals timely or appropriately. 

OIG identified weaknesses in the ACAS program’s compliance procedures. To maximize compliance, the Customs Modernization Act requires CBP to inform the trade community clearly and completely of its legal obligations by, for example, notifying air carriers of noncompliance when appropriate. However, OIG found CBP did not identify and communicate issues of noncompliance to air carriers. In addition, air carriers did not always provide CBP the Flight Departure Messages that contain aircraft departure times necessary to enforce ACAS compliance. OIG said CBP prioritized air carrier participation in ACAS over implementing compliance procedures. As a result, the watchdog maintains air carriers may continue to be noncompliant with program requirements. 

The audit also revealed that air-carrier compliance rates have worsened since the program transitioned from a pilot to a federally mandated program in June 2018. 

OIG made one recommendation to TSA – that it update and implement procedures in its TSA Security Programs to ensure air carriers provide their screening methods to CBP as part of the ACAS referral resolution process. 

TSA agreed and stated that it is currently developing changes to Security Programs that will require air carriers to include the TSA-approved screening method used to resolve ACAS referrals as part of the ACAS referral resolution process. The estimated completion date for this work is September 30, 2020. 

CBP meanwhile received three recommendations:

  1. Develop and implement procedures to ensure air carriers resolve timely ACAS referrals before transporting high-risk cargo to the United States. 
  2. Add and implement ACAS referral resolution procedures to its ACAS Referrals Mailbox Standard Operating Procedures to include a requirement for CBP and TSA to conduct a review of air carrier screening methods prior to aircraft departure to ensure air carriers comply with approved TSA Security Programs. 
  3. Develop and implement compliance procedures for the ACAS Program. Specifically, compliance procedures must include processes to identify and communicate instances of noncompliance to air carriers, and monitor CBP’s receipt of critical Flight Departure Message information to facilitate measurement of program compliance. 

CBP concurred and expects to have completed work to address its first two recommendations by February 26, 2021. For the third recommendation, CBP said will continue to expand upon its compliance program initiated during the course of the OIG audit. Specifically, it will refine electronically generated reports to measure carrier compliance to better identify levels of compliance. 

OIG pointed out however that CBP’s response did not address developing procedures to communicate instances of noncompliance to carriers. It also did not address how it plans to incorporate Flight Departure Messages to assist in measuring program compliance. 

As global air cargo traffic is predicted to grow more than 4% each year over the next 20 years, and because just one ACAS cargo referral left unresolved could have catastrophic consequences, it is vitally important that CBP and TSA close any gaps and address any weaknesses to ensure a fully secure air cargo screening program.

Read the full report at OIG

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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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