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A gap left unchecked in US border security

The United States has worked tirelessly to protect our borders and ensure that another terrorist attack does not occur on U.S. soil.  Our nation has committed billions of dollars in increased personnel, technology, and infrastructure for security by land, air, and sea.   

Yet, a massive gap remains that potentially threatens every citizen.   

{mosads}Today, millions of packages originating overseas enter the United States annually.  Most of these packages – ranging from small letters to large boxes – are gifts, online purchases, or part of a business exchange.  While many of these items are benign, the United States took precaution to prevent dangerous items from being shipped from abroad to the homeland through the Trade Act of 2002.  Under this law, public and private carriers are required to provide advance electronic security data to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  However, despite this law, each day thousands of packages enter the United States without law enforcement having any effective means of screening for dangerous materials.    

This security threat exists due to the failure to require foreign postal services (Russia Post, China Post, etc.) to provide advance electronic security data on inbound packages to the U.S.  These packages, sent from foreign Posts, many via commercial airlines, and received by the U.S. Postal Service, currently enter the U.S. without submitting advanced security data that can be run through our government’s intelligence and law enforcement systems.  Given the volume, it is inconceivable that all packages can be adequately screened without such advance security data. 

The October 2010 toner cartridge bomb plot demonstrated how even one package, could threaten the lives of Americans.  If successful, this attack would have significantly damaged our global supply chain system and economic security.   

More than one report reveals that the same security gap leveraged by terrorists in 2010 continues today.  The U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General recently released an alert for corrective action due to safety and security concerns.  The Inspector General found that the U.S. Postal Service is not complying with U.S. law by failing to present inbound international mail to CBP for inspection.  A study released by the Coalition of Services Industries further found that as many as 179 million packages may enter the United States via foreign Posts and the U.S. Postal Service without advance security data and are unscreened each year. Even if the accurate number is a fraction of that amount, it is still too much of a risk in today’s dangerous world. 

Under the authority of the Trade Act, CBP has been working with private express carriers who voluntarily use the Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) pilot, a program that provides advance security data on packages entering the U.S.  The private express carriers provide this data to CBP, the Transportation Security Administration, the National Targeting Center, and other federal agencies.   

However, the U.S. Postal Service does not.  Why?   

As a member of the Universal Postal Union, a specialized and exclusive agency of the United Nations (UN), the U.S. Postal Service follows regulations issued by the UPU over U.S. law.   These UPU regulations prevent the U.S. Postal Service from requiring foreign Posts to provide CBP with advance security data necessary to identify dangerous shipments bound for the U.S. 

Clearly this violates the spirit, if not the intent of U.S. law, and creates a disturbing situation where the UN prevents U.S. law enforcement agencies from receiving risk-based targeting data early in the air supply chain from foreign Posts.  This is especially true when terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and others could leverage such gaps in our security to attack the U.S. homeland.  

Following the recent bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 in the Sinai Peninsula by the Islamic State, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson announced “precautionary enhancements to aviation security.”  The first of these is “expanded screening applied to items on aircraft.”   This is a step in the right direction but  it will not alone fill the serious security gap in our open postal border. 

In addition to the new measures announced by DHS, the U.S. government should immediately move to close this security gap by mandating advance electronic security screening of all packages.  This must apply not only to private express carriers, but also to all postal shipments from foreign Posts received by the U.S. Postal Service. 

It is vital that we close our open postal border and urge our government to make advance electronic security screening mandatory for all shipments.

Ahern is a principal at The Chertoff Group and former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection within DHS.


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