Making sure terrorists aren't smuggling some dangerous weapon into the country by way of the port of Baltimore or some similar entry point is a formidable challenge. It's unrealistic to inspect every container on every ship, for instance, so it's vital that authorities be able to determine which ought to be.
That's why it's deeply troubling to learn from the Government Accountability Office that the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) is so fraught with problems. The cooperative government and business initiative is intended to make the vulnerability assessment process easier for U.S. Customs officials by having importers, port authorities and others submit security plans that meet certain minimum criteria.
If done correctly, that sort of voluntary self-assessment and policing can be extremely useful. High-performing companies receive less scrutiny so government can devote its resources to others.
But the GAO found that Customs officials rarely, if ever, challenge what companies claim, and companies aren't required to employ third parties to audit security measures. It's not unusual for firms to be certified under the program before they've even implemented the necessary procedures.
The GAO report released yesterday doesn't recommend the program be abandoned, but it strongly points to a need for greater quality controls. The findings also fit a pattern of federal neglect - port security simply has never received the resources or priority given to passenger air service.
Yet ports such as Baltimore's, with their immense flow of goods, are clearly vulnerable. Some improvements have been made since 2001, and greater oversight of C-TPAT security plans would be a help as well. But the task also requires a president and Congress willing to spend the estimated billions of dollars needed to do the job right.