Supply Chain Security:

CBP Needs to Enhance Its Guidance and Oversight of High-Risk Maritime Cargo Shipments

GAO-15-294: Published: Jan 27, 2015. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 2015.

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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2009 through 2013, less than 1 percent of maritime shipments arriving in the United States were identified as high risk by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but CBP does not have accurate data on their disposition (i.e., outcomes). CBP officials (targeters) are generally required to hold high-risk shipments for examination unless evidence shows that an examination can be waived per CBP policy. In particular, targeters at Advance Targeting Units (targeting units)—responsible for reviewing shipments arriving at ports within their respective regions—can waive an examination 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. GAO found that CBP examined the vast majority of high-risk shipments, but CBP's disposition data are not accurate because of various factors—such as the inclusion of shipments that were never sent to the United States—and that the data overstate the number of high-risk shipments. On the basis of GAO's analyses and findings, CBP is taking steps to correct its data.

When determining the disposition of high-risk shipments, CBP's targeting units are inconsistently applying criteria to make waiver decisions and are incorrectly documenting the reasons for some waivers. CBP policy lacks definitions for standard exception waivers. As a result, targeters are inconsistently applying and recording standard exception waivers. Because of these inconsistencies, some targeting units may be unnecessarily holding shipments for examination, while others may be waiving shipments that should be examined. Developing definitions for standard exceptions could help ensure that CBP examines shipments as intended. Further, some targeters at targeting units GAO visited 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. Updating and disseminating guidance in policy could help ensure targeters correctly document such waivers.

CBP has efforts in place, such as self-inspections, to provide oversight of its policies on the disposition (whether examined or waived) of high-risk shipments; however, 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. Developing an enhanced methodology for selecting sample shipments, and changing the method for calculating compliance, could improve CBP's estimate of compliance and its ability to identify and correct deficiencies.

This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in November 2014. It does not include details that CBP deemed sensitive security information.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. economy is dependent on a secure global supply chain. In fiscal year 2013, approximately 12 million maritime cargo shipments arrived in the United States. Within the federal government, CBP is responsible for administering cargo security, to include identifying “high-risk” maritime cargo shipments with the potential to contain terrorist contraband. GAO was asked to review CBP's disposition of such shipments.

This report discusses (1) how many maritime shipments CBP determined to be high risk and the extent to which CBP has accurate data on the disposition of such shipments, (2) the extent to which CBP consistently applies criteria and documents reasons for waiving examinations, and (3) the extent to which CBP ensures its policies on the disposition of high-risk shipments are being followed.

GAO analyzed CBP data on maritime shipments arriving in the United States during fiscal years 2009 through 2013. GAO also visited four CBP targeting units selected on the basis of the percentage of maritime shipments they waived, among other factors.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that CBP define standard exception waiver categories and disseminate policy on documenting articulable reason waivers. Further, CBP should enhance its methodology for selecting shipments for self-inspections and change the way it calculates the compliance rate. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Jennifer Grover at (202) 512-7141 or groverj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2015, CBP issued a memorandum, Cargo Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System (CERTS) Security Exam Waiver Deployment, notifying its advanced targeting units (ATU) of new procedures for waiving high-risk shipments based on articulable mitigating factors. The new procedures require waivers based on articulable reasons to be reviewed and approved by a supervisor within CERTS. In December 2015, CBP issued a new policy, National Security Cargo Targeting Procedures, that reiterates the requirement for a Port Director or his/her appointed management designee to approve articulable reason waivers and enter justification comments. CBP's actions help ensure that all targeting units are correctly documenting waivers based on articulable reasons in CERTS.

    Recommendation: To help ensure compliance with policies on waiving high-risk shipments, the Commissioner of CBP should direct OFO to update and disseminate policy to ensure that all targeting units are correctly documenting waivers based on articulable reasons in CERTS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2015, we reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was conducting self-inspections to determine whether CBP officials were following policy when it comes to examining high-risk cargo shipments. We found that CBP could improve its ability to estimate national compliance rates by increasing its sample size or creating a stratified sample to focus on other shipment factors, including shipments that were waived rather than examined. As a result, we recommended that CBP develop an enhanced methodology for selecting shipment samples used for self-inspection to increase the likelihood that any potential deficiencies will be identified so that corrective actions can be taken to reduce errors in the future. In response, CBP has revised its self-inspection worksheet by increasing the number of required sample shipments, and including a question to check compliance with high-risk shipments waived. We believe that these actions better position CBP to identify instances where policy is not being followed and implement corrective actions.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of the disposition of high-risk shipments--examinations and waivers - the Commissioner of CBP should direct OFO to develop an enhanced methodology for selecting shipment samples used for self-inspection to increase the likelihood that any potential deficiencies will be identified so that corrective actions can be taken to reduce errors in the future.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2016, CBP enhanced its Cargo Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System (CERTS) by enabling it to generate a High-Risk Shipment Report to identify shipments that are not in compliance with CBP's targeting policy. The High-Risk Shipment Report, among other things, includes data, by port, on the total number of high-risk shipments (1) that arrived, (2) that were waived, and (3) with no event (e.g., examination) recorded in CERTS. Additionally, in December 2015, CBP issued a new policy--National Security Cargo Targeting Procedures--which states that Port Directors or their appointed designees are responsible for monitoring and reviewing the High-Risk Shipment Report to ensure that examinations and waivers of high-risk shipments are properly documented. In addition, the port officials are responsible for taking corrective actions, if needed. CBP's actions help ensure that (1) it can identify compliant and noncompliant shipments to calculate compliance, and (2) policies on the disposition of high-risk shipments are being followed.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of the disposition of high-risk shipments--examinations and waivers - the Commissioner of CBP should direct OFO to develop a better national estimate of compliance with maritime cargo targeting policies by calculating the compliance rate based on individual shipments rather than worksheets.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2015, CBP issued a new policy, National Security Cargo Targeting Procedures, that includes criteria for waiving mandatory examinations of high-risk shipments (referred to as exceptions). The new policy also specifically identifies certain types of shipments that do not qualify for exceptions to examination requirements. These clarifications address issues we identified in our report (GAO-15-294) regarding CBP advanced targeting units (ATUs) inconsistently applying standard exceptions to make waiver decisions. In addition, CBP developed a new process for recording waivers in the Cargo Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System (CERTS) and issued a memorandum to targeting units on how to apply the new procedures. CBP's actions help ensure that all targeting units are correctly and consistently applying and documenting waivers.

    Recommendation: To help ensure compliance with policies on waiving high-risk shipments, the Commissioner of CBP should direct the Office of Field Operations (OFO) to develop a definition for each of the standard exception waiver categories and include those definitions in policy to ensure that targeting units are consistently applying those definitions when making and documenting waiver decisions in the Cargo Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System (CERTS).

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

 

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