‘Huge security gap’ lets dangerous packages enter US through postal system

WASHINGTON — Every day, about a million packages are shipped into the U.S.  through the U.S. Postal Service from China, Russia, India and other countries. Many packages are not checked for dangerous and illegal contents, posing what the co-leader of a new national security project calls a “huge security gap.”

“The gap is essentially when mail is sent to the United States from foreign countries; if it’s of a certain weight, it doesn’t go through normal cargo surveillance like the mail that is sent through private mailing services such as UPS and FedEx,” said Juliette Kayyem, of Americans for Securing All Packages (ASAP).

Every year, according to ASAP, 340 million mail items, from small letters to large boxes, sent from foreign postal systems enter the U.S. postal system delivery stream — without electronic data that could tip off intelligence agencies to a threat.

Shipping companies, on the other hand, are required under the 2002 U.S. Trade Act to collect what’s called advance electronic security data. It’s used to track hundreds of millions of the packages that flow into the United States from foreign countries each year.

The law did not call for the immediate utilization of the system by the USPS. It said the DHS and the Treasury Department should consult with the postmaster general to determine whether it would be appropriate to implement.

The system, according to Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama administration, has “managed, surveyed, looked at and assessed (packages) to determine whether there’s a threat.”

“A perfect example,” said Kayyem, “is if there is an address in Russia that is sending packages to a specific address in Baltimore that seems to be too consistent and of the same weight every time. We know this is how a lot of narcotics are getting into the country.”

On Oct. 29, 2010, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula shipped two packages to the United States containing bombs hidden in printer cartridges. The FedEx and UPS packages never made it — they were intercepted in the U.K. and Dubai, thanks to a lucky break: intelligence provided by a former al-Qaida terrorist.

The memory of that near-miss haunts many current and former security officials, who know that even though it’s been mandated, and the capability exists in the private sector, there still is no such system for the U.S. Postal Service for packages sent from foreign postal services.

As a result, ASAP, led by Kayyem and Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seeks to close what it calls in a statement “a dangerous security gap that leaves our nation vulnerable to terrorist attacks and invites illegal and toxic drugs into our communities.”

In an alert released by the postal service’s Office of the Inspector General on Sept. 3, 2015, the agency was criticized for its practices.

“We are issuing this alert because some inbound international mail is not being presented for inspection, as required by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This could present public safety and security concerns, which could reflect poorly on the Postal Service’s brand or image,” said the alert.

WTOP reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which did not respond to questions in time to be included in this story.

Kayyem says the problem, as the U.S. prepares to observe the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is the lack of pressure close the gap.

“I think they [the Department of Homeland Security] haven’t been required to do enough. This is a major gap, and — look; it’s not that technology is the challenge anymore, because we have an entire mailing system right on the private side that is using electronic data,” said Kayyem.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, shared a similar concern in The Washington Post on Aug. 4. He suggested the lack of attention to the loophole has exacerbated “the dangerous epidemic of dangerous drugs sweeping the United States.”

He added, “No congressional district has been spared from this problem, and people are dying at an alarming rate from the use of fentanyl, bath salts, flakka, K2, Spice and other synthetic drugs.”

Experts say many of those drugs are bought directly and shipped from abroad and sent directly through the U.S. postal system because illicit drug dealers are aware of the loophole.

McCaul recommended “advanced electronic screening data must accompany all packages.”

ASAP said in material sent to WTOP that its goal is to pressure “President Obama and Congress to insist that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of the Treasury to enforce the 2002 law by requiring foreign posts to submit customs and advance electronic data for shipments imported to the United States.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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