Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Customs Will Board Only the Most Suspicious Ships New Policy Prompts Questions of Security

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Customs Will Board Only the Most Suspicious Ships New Policy Prompts Questions of Security

Article excerpt

U.S. Customs inspectors will board fewer ships at ports like Jacksonville's under new federal regulations being implemented as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Officials say the new regulations, which cover all U.S. ports, will allow inspectors to focus more of their efforts on ships that are at higher risk for smuggling drugs, transporting terrorists or violating other Customs regulations.

But the head of the inspectors union in Jacksonville says that, by not boarding every ship, security won't be as tight as in the past.

"This will drastically reduce the number of ships we actually board," said Customs inspector Barbara Goodman of Jacksonville. "Our concern is that the door is going to be open for these crew members to come and go."

The new regulations were part of NAFTA, passed in December 1993, but it took several years to come up with criteria to implement the changes. Customs officials recently ordered port inspectors to begin implementing the new regulations.

Dennis Murphy, a Customs spokesman in Washington, said the new regulations were needed because the methods ports used to board ships around the country differed. Some boarded all ships, those directly from foreign ports and those from U.S. ports. Others, like Jacksonville, only boarded those from foreign ports.

Boarding each vessel, though, turned out to be mostly a waste of time, Murphy said.

"We don't get a lot of drug seizures from boarding," Murphy said. "You'll have to look long and hard through many, many years to find one."

Most drug seizures are made as a result of intelligence, officials said.

Congress passed legislation in 1994 that said Customs officials can be selective concerning which ships they board, and left it to the agency to determine what criteria would be used.

"We worked hand in hand with the [inspectors] union to work up a plan on how we were going to do this," Murphy said.

Customs officials at each port were allowed to set their own criteria.

James Groccia, area port director for Jacksonville, said inspectors will begin keeping records on foreign ships and, based on that information, a group of inspectors will determine which ships need closer scrutiny. …

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