Former CBP head says U.S. cargo scan plan is a "simpleton's approach"

Published 20 November 2007

Former head of U.S. customs says U.S. government’s plans to implement scanning of all air and sea cargo destined for the U.S. is a “simpleton’s approach” to supply chain security

Business people in New Zealand are worried about the implications of a law requiring tightening of inspection of U.S.-bound cargo. Robert Bonner, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the time of the 9/11 terror attacks and now a member of the Unisys Security Advisory Panel, said on a visit to New Zealand that the 100 percent container inspection law, if implemented, would create significant logistical problems, given that up to 600 ports around the world export to the United States. In August, President George Bush signed into law legislation which would require all foreign shipping containers destined for the United States to be scanned, at ports of origin, with imaging and radiation detection equipment for components of nuclear weapons. This would come into effect within five years. Scanning of all air cargo would be phased in over three years. The United States is New Zealand’s second-largest trading partner.

Bonner said scanning of all cargo at its port of origin had not been recommended by the 9/11 Commission, as had been widely claimed by proponents of the bill. The current process of identifying potentially “risky” containers and scanning them in foreign ports was proving to be satisfactory. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of U.S.-bound containers were scanned. “It’s a terrible idea. It hasn’t been implemented … and I hope reason will prevail,” he said. Stewart Milne, executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of New Zealand, which represents all airlines flying in and out of New Zealand, said the concept would be unworkable, causing delays that could breach exporters contractual obligations. “Air cargo has a different imperative, and that is a lot of it is fresh — seafood, flowers — so it’s going to cause major problems.” Bonner said the customs relationship between New Zealand and the United States was second to none. He praised New Zealand for playing a world leadership role in getting the World Customs Organization Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade, now ratified by 147 countries, up and running in 2005. “New Zealand has worked to put in place the world standard, best practice of supply chain security and that is why it is the only country the U.S. has recognized.”

In July, the United States formally recognized New Zealand’s Secure Exports Scheme. The scheme is open to exporters who commit to assuring the secure packing and transport of goods and is overseen by New Zealand Customs. Bonner said exports from New Zealand businesses that were part of the scheme were minimally processed at New Zealand and U.S. ports, and should a terrorist act slow or halt global trade, members’ goods would be less likely to be impeded. Not all exporters are convinced. One said that growing demands on exporters by the United States since 9/11 were adding to compliance costs. Bonner said businesses had the choice of joining the scheme and enjoying the benefits of reduced likelihood of customs intervention, or they could risk the possibility of having containers delayed. Some countries consider they are a low-risk terrorist target, but one of the key goals of terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda is to disrupt world trade. Ideally, other countries would adopt similar import regimes he said.

Bob Walters, Export New Zealand chief executive, said that while compliance costs were a headache for exporters, security clearance was a small part of the total cost. The New Zealand Government pays about 20 percent of the total of about $45 million. “This sort of stuff is imposed on us and, frankly, we don’t have an option. America is on a war footing, almost, and deciding what rules it will apply when and how and to whom, and the best thing we can do is to comply and make the compliance part of our processes as efficiently as we can.”