Spokane Journal of Business

U.S. Customs has changed greatly here, post-Sept. 11

Spokane office searches nearly every shipment, looks for weapons material

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The job of a U.S. Customs Service inspector has changed a great deal since Sept. 11, 2001.

Perhaps most notably, inspectors are busier, says Mike Marshall, port director at the U.S. Customs office here.

Were doing a lot more inspections than we used to, he says.

Although customs inspectors always have examined the paperwork for every international cargo shipment that arrives here by airplane, rail, or truck that hasnt already been cleared elsewhere, they didnt physically check each of those shipments by opening boxes or other containers, he says. Now, they do so on almost 100 percent of international cargo shipments here, Marshall says.

Inspectors also are searching for different things than they used to, he says.

Before last years terrorist attacks, drugs were the No. 1 target of customs searches; now, its anything that can be used to create weapons of mass destruction. To aid that effort, all customs inspectors now wear pager-like radiation-detection devices on their belts to alert them to the existence of radioactive materials, Marshall says.

Despite the increased vigilance on the part of customs inspectors, Marshall doesnt believe freight shipments have been delayed nationwide as a result.

Yes, were going to look at it more; I dont think cargos slowed down, he says.

Thats because most big container-loads of cargo are inspected at their ports of entry, and the nations biggest ports have new technologies that help them speed the movement of cargo, he says.

In Seattle, for example, the customs office earlier this year began using a giant gamma X-ray imaging system that can scan entire container-loads of cargo in minutes. Previously, it might have taken hours or even days for a container to be unloaded and searched, says Mike Milne, a U.S. Customs spokesman in Seattle.

The amount of cargo handled by Spokanes customs officewhich has three inspectorsis small enough that the inspectors have been able to absorb the increased workload, Marshall says.

Still, Spokane lacks an important part of the importing procedure, a hole that Marshall is looking to fill, he says: It needs a bonded warehouse where cargo can be unloaded and examined, then cleared.

If I say, I want your container emptied now, you have to have a place to do it, he says.

Cargo that isnt cleared through customs at another port of entry arrives in Spokane under a bond, or liability for financial responsibility, which is cleared once the cargo is examined and the appropriate duties are paid. Currently, individual freight-handling companies have small areas in their own warehouses set aside for such activities, but the areas are big enough only for parts and pieces, Marshall says.

Whats more, Spokane needs a secure facility, one that has barriers to prevent unauthorized access to cargo and that does background checks on employees, he says.

Marshall estimates that a 3,000-square-foot to 5,000-square-foot space would fulfill the customs offices requirements, and he has talked to officials at Spokane International Airport about identifying such a space, he says. Preferably, a private company, such as a freight forwarder, would establish and operate a bonded warehouse here, he says.

Throughout the agency, U.S. Customs has made a number of changes to adapt to its heightened responsibilities, Marshall says.

Big customs offices at major ports of entry have added dozens of new employees in the past year. In Seattle, where Marshall spent 16 years before being transferred to Spokane in March, there were 64 inspectors early last springbut that office now has almost 100 inspectors, he says.

Theyre going to be hiring even more throughout the country, he says.

As well, groups called targeting teams sift through mountains of computerized records to isolate shipments to be pulled aside for intensive inspection, Marshall says. They look at vessel routing, where goods originated, and how goods were transported across their country of origin, all to identify questionable shipments, he says.

Ships now are required to transmit their shipping manifests to customs offices electronically before they arrive in the U.S., Marshall says. Thats to ensure customs agents have time to go through the paperwork and determine whether its anything we would want to look at, he says.

At an individual level, the job undoubtedly is more stressful, Marshall says.

Were looking at all the aircraft and trying to look at all the freight. Theres a lot more to read every day, he says. Its got all of us stretched a little thin.

Says Marshall of his job, post-9/11: Now we look at it a little different.

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