Customs Service Drug Interdiction:

Internal Control Weaknesses and Other Concerns With Low-Risk Cargo Entry Programs

GGD-98-175: Published: Jul 31, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Custom Service's drug-enforcement operations along the Southwest border of the United States, focusing on: (1) Customs' low-risk, cargo entry programs in use at three ports on the Southwest border--Otay Mesa, California; Laredo, Texas; and Nogales, Arizona; (2) the results of GAO's evaluation of internal controls over the Line Release Program; and (3) the processes used to assess the risk of narcotics smuggling in other cargo entry programs.

GAO noted that: (1) to balance the objectives of facilitating trade through ports and interdicting illegal drugs being smuggled into the United States, Customs has initiated and encouraged its ports to use several programs to identify and separate low-risk shipments from those with apparently higher smuggling risk; (2) the Line Release Program was designed to expedite cargo shipments that Customs determined to be repetitive, high volume, and low risk for narcotics smuggling; (3) in 1996, Customs implemented the Carrier Initiative Program, which required that the Line Release shipments across the Southwest border be transported by Customs-approved carriers and driven by Customs-approved drivers; (4) after the Carrier Initiative Program was implemented, the number of Southwest border Line Release shipments dropped significantly; (5) GAO identified internal control weaknesses in one or more of the processes used at each of the three ports it visited to screen Line Release applicants for entry into the program; (6) these weaknesses included: (a) lack of specific criteria for determining applicant eligibility at two of the three ports; (b) incomplete documentation of the screening and review of applicants at two of the three ports; and (c) lack of documentation of supervisory review and approval of decisions; (7) in May 1998, Customs representatives from northern and southern land-border cargo ports approved draft Line Release volume and compliance eligibility criteria for program applicants and draft recertification standards for program participants; (8) the Three Tier Targeting Program--a method of targeting high-risk shipments for narcotics inspection--was being used at the three Southwest border ports that GAO visited; (9) according to officials at the three ports GAO reviewed, the Three Tier program had two operational problems that contributed to their loss of confidence in the program's ability to distinguish high- from low-risk shipments; (10) one new targeting method--the Automated Targeting System--is being pilot tested at Laredo; (11) used in conjunction with the Prefile Program, this system is designed to enable port officials to identify and direct inspectional attention to high-risk shipments; (12) the Automated Targeting System, which automatically assesses shipment entry information for known smuggling indicators, is designed to enable inspectors to target high-risk shipments more efficiently; and (13) Customs is evaluating the Automated Targeting System for expansion to other land-border cargo ports.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although Customs issued national quality standards for Line Release on November 17, 1998, the standards did not include strengthened internal control procedures over Line Release applicants. Customs plans no further action on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Customs should strengthen internal control procedures for the Line Release application and review process to ensure fully researched and documented risk-assessment decisions on applicants.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: United States Customs Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Customs concluded that because of GAO's findings and other considerations, field offices were to discontinue using the Three Tier Targeting Program to identify and target high-risk shipments.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Customs should suspend the Three Tier Targeting Program until it can be determined if more complete and comprehensive data are available on which to base "low risk for narcotics smuggling" risk assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: United States Customs Service

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Customs is continuing to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the Automated Targeting System.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Customs should evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the Automated Targeting System, as designed and implemented at Laredo, and use the evaluation results to determine whether other land-border cargo ports should implement the system or whether additional testing is needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: United States Customs Service


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