International port operators and cargo shippers have joined a voluntary U.S. customs program to screen millions of containers before they leave their ports and reach American shores.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the newly formed U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency now requires cargo shippers to verify the contents of sea containers to U.S. customs officials 24 hours before leaving their port of origin.
Robert Bonner, who heads the agency, told reporters at a briefing in New York that the 24-hour rule is part of a far-reaching anti-terrorism plan that targets incoming cargo long before it reaches a U.S. port of entry.
"Our priority mission of this new consolidated border agency is preventing terrorists and or terrorist weapons from entering the United States," he said.
The new agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for managing, controlling and securing the nation's land and sea borders.
Mr. Bonner said that the United States has secured the participation of 26 of the world's largest foreign seaports, and nearly 80 percent of the world's cargo shippers to screen and identify high-risk cargo before it leaves their ports.
The program, called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, requires participating ports and cargo shippers to meet specific security standards set by the agency. Now more than 100 customs officers travel to foreign ports to check on those standards.
Mr. Bonner said that, in return, participants receive "green lane" status, meaning expedited entry into U.S. ports.
"Our strategy is designed not just to secure the movement of trade and goods to the United States, but also to do that in a way that doesn't choke off the free flow of that trade into the United States," he explained. "If we accomplish security and we choke off the flow into the United States, we would do enormous harm to the economy."
Some nine million containers arrive at U.S. ports every year, a 50 percent increase since 2001. Another 12 million commercial trucks cross U.S. borders from Canada and Mexico carrying a wide variety of cargo.
The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has 42,000 federal employees including 17,000 inspectors and canine enforcement officers who also deal with illegal immigration, drug interdiction and the communication of agricultural diseases.