Closing gaps in the Container Security Initiative

Now codified in the SAFE Port Act of 2006, the Container Security Initiative (CSI), a 2002 program of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), is a major security program involving in-bound containers to the United States and the agreement of foreign governments to allow the presences of CBP personnel at their ports. The intention was to acquire the cooperation of the top seaports worldwide from which 80 percent of cargo destined for the United States originates. Currently there are about 37 seaports and 23 administrations around the world participating in CSI. Its basic elements include:

1. Using intelligence and automated information to identify and target containers that pose a risk for terrorism;
2. Pre-screening those containers that pose a risk at the port of departure before they arrive at U.S. ports;
3. Using detection technology to quickly pre-screen containers that pose a risk, and;
4. And, using smarter, tamper-evident containers.

CSI's Core, the Cargo Manifest

The core document of CSI is the cargo manifest which must be filed by the vessel carrier with CBP 24-hours prior to loading the cargo and sailing to the U.S.. The manifest is a description of the cargo shipped along with additional, related information about the cargo, shipper, and consignee. Examples of typical manifest contents are:

- Lowest external package unit
- Precise cargo description or HTS number and weight
- Complete Shipper(s) details - name and address
- Complete Consignee(s) details - name and address;
- Container Number(s)
- International Maritime Dangerous Goods UN (United Nations) number or the USDOT - NA (North America) number, as applicable for hazardous materials
- and, Seal Number(s)

The Realistic Role of the Manifest as a Security Instrument

Prior to CSI, vessel carriers used terms such as FAK (Freight of All Kinds), STC (Said to Contain), and SLC (Shippers Load and Count) to describe container contents. These terms were used because they were honest, recognizing that the vessel carrier really didn't know what was in the container since the shipping line was not present at "stuffing" or loading, nor before the container was sealed. Today, the vessel carrier still receives the container from a freight forwarder or a motor carrier or rail carrier who doesn't know container contents. This could be because the initial motor carrier, for instance, picked up the load already sealed along with a shipper-prepared bill of lading containing the information that the shipper and carrier need since the bill is the legal contract for carriage establishing the carrier's cargo liability. Even today, the vessel carrier has no idea of container contents. The vessel carrier simply files the 24-hour manifest on the word of the shipper, or its forwarder or the originating carrier involved in the transaction.

What Security is Provided by the Carrier in Filing the Declaration?

Until the Rotterdam Rules, which placed the responsibility and obligations of cargo content and control on the vessel carrier are confirmed by the U.S. Senate and signed by the president, there is no liability on the vessel carrier for really knowing what's in the container. Only the Rotterdam Rules will make all vessel carriers recognize their liability exposure and begin to focus on security issues connected to it since the new rules clearly place legal liability, risk, and cargo responsibility on the carrier at the shipper's place of business, not at the port where the vessel carrier receives the cargo.

Today, there is no genuine security in filing the 24-hour manifest. No opening of the container, nor inspection of contents is made by the vessel carrier. Filing the 24-hour manifest is actually no more reliable than the former use of the terms STC, FAK or SLC. While one may take comfort in taking the word of shippers like IBM, GE, General Motors, or Toyota, there are a number of companies shipping cargo to the U.S. that are unknown. There is an undeniable problem with the use of the CSI-mandated manifest as a security instrument: the vessel carrier does not know what's in the container. It only knows what the container is alleged to contain.

Can This Weakness be Fixed?

The good news is that specialized companies and container security device (CSD) technology exist today that can fix the problem of not really knowing the contents of the container. First, the shipper could use an international firm such as SGS or Cotecna who are able to physically verify contents at the time of stuffing, and sealing the container. Second, the shipper could use CSDs that electronically identify and record any authorized agent of the shipper to verify the cargo and seal the container. CSDs then monitor its movement, its access, its internal environment, its arrival at destination and identify and record the person authorized to open the container.

Having worked in the law enforcement and counterintelligence field for years, I'll be the first to admit that there is no perfect system of security. All security entails human elements and interactions. The human element, however, can be a strong positive element in the security process as evidenced by the legal concept of a "chain-of-custody" which inextricably links individuals to integrity of the chain-of-custody's purpose and function. So too, does a human's role relate to verifying the contents of a container.

These existing devices can provide that level of control necessary to satisfy the needs of exporters, importers and carriers with respect to supply chain visibility, effectiveness, and efficiency while meeting the needs of governments with respect to security. In addition to the benefit of actually knowing the contents of the container, the use of these devices can also provide a special benefit to the vessel carriers in light of the impending Rotterdam Rules. Ultimately, the combination of new technology and new rules for vessel carriers will elevate the 24-hr. manifest to be the security assurance as it was meant to be. Until that happens, CSI is weak and we are at risk.

About the author: Dr. Giermanski is the Chairman of Powers Global Holdings, Inc. and President of Powers International, LLC, an international transportation security company.  He served as Regents Professor at Texas A&M International University, and as an adjunct graduate faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He was Director of Transportation and Logistics Studies, Center for the Study of Western Hemispheric Trade at Texas A&M International University. He has frequently given invited testimony on NAFTA, transportation, and other international business issues before the U.S. Senate and House, the Texas Senate and House, EPA, and the U.S. International Trade Commission.