House Panel Looks at Seaport Cybersecurity and CBP Staffing

House Panel Looks at Seaport Cybersecurity and CBP Staffing

January 21, 2022  | Katie Donahue

This week, the House Homeland Security’s subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, & Operations held a hearing entitled “Assessing the State of America’s Seaports.” This hearing mostly focused on Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers and cybersecurity efforts in ports, with some questions about FEMA and emergency funding as well as the supply chain crisis.

Witnesses included:

  • Christopher J. Connor, President and Chief Executive Officer, American Association of Port Authorities
  • Anthony Reardon, National President, National Treasury Employees Union
  • Gene D. Seroka, Executive Director, Port of Los Angeles, City of Los Angeles
  • Cathie Vick, Chief Development and Government Affairs Officer, Port of Virginia, Virginia Port Authority
  • Richert L. Self, Executive Director, Port of Lake Charles

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers at ports

Anthony Reardon was the witness representing the union for CBP agents. He cited the shortage of CBP staff at ports: they are currently down 900 CBP officers, 200 Agriculture Specialists, and 200 trade enforcement personnel.

Due to these shortages, there has been ample overtime pay to cover missing gaps. Christopher Connor remarked that for one medium-sized California port, in 2020, out of a total operating budget of $20 million, $1 million went to CBP officers’ overtime. While this was needed for the short-term during the supply chain boom, he indicated that overtime pay was intended to be a to be a temporary fix and is unsustainable for the long-term. In addition, the vast increase in containers from the import boom, has only further stretched scant CBP resources. This is particularly important, said Rep. Michael Guest (R-MS), as CBP agents deal with the seizure of illegal drugs at ports.

While witnesses from ports agreed on the necessity for these border patrol agents, Connor and Vick both stated the difficulties their ports have been put through in accommodating CBP offices. Due to funding shortages, said Connor, CBP has relied on port budgets to pay for facility upgrades. Ports, as a minimum requirement, give CBP a room or floor to conduct inspections.

However, over the years, said Connor, this has grown to include office space, IT facilities, recreation space, parking, gun lockers, gyms and more. These “requests” for facilities wreak havoc on port budgets, as Cathie Vick stated that requests are often given with such short notice that they are not built into yearly budget plans.

Both union and port representatives agree on a solution: robust staffing and funding of CBP. This will help solve staffing shortages and will stabilize yearly port expenditures.

Port cybersecurity initiatives

Seroka spoke about the extensive cybersecurity initiatives at the Port of Los Angeles (LA). In 2014, thanks to a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the Port of LA was the first port in the world to create a cybersecurity operations center. In December 2020, the Port of LA, in collaboration with IBM Security, created a Port Cyber Resilience Center to raise security levels past traditional threat monitoring to observe all stakeholders involved in cargo flow.

Seroka recognized that improving the cybersecurity at the Port of LA is an ongoing process. Currently, he said they are stopping 40 million cyber-attacks per month, as intrusion efforts have doubled compared to pre-COVID levels. Vick also noted that the Port of Virginia created a cybersecurity center through the FEMA Port Security Grant Program.

Disaster relief funding

As the director of southwest Louisiana’s Port of Lake Charles, Richert Self spoke about the urgent need for FEMA funding. Port Charles, and countless other Louisiana cities, still have not received federal funding assistance since the catastrophic 2020 Laura and Delta hurricanes. Self, in his testimony, estimated these Category 4 storms caused $241 million in damage to the port, of which they are still waiting on FEMA and disaster relief.

Supply chain crisis

As we are still in the midst of a supply chain crisis, there were inevitably some questions posed to port operators about how they are handling the vast rise in input and output. Throughput at ports is still dramatically increased compared to pre-pandemic levels. Seroka noted that freight levels at the Port of LA are up 16 percent compared to 2019. Vick said cargo levels at the Port of Virginia are up 25 percent, with an 11 percent growth in exports and a 27 percent growth in imports, mostly due to the rise in e-commerce.

Dan Bishop (R-NC) asked why statistics show more ships outside the Port of LA even though the port has made large investments in efficiency. Seroka explained that in November 2021, stakeholders redid the metrics of the queuing system, now counting ships the moment they leave Asia. Before, ships were only counted once they were within 40 miles of the ports. While the numbers look inflated, explained Seroka, they are counting a broader segment of ships.

Because of supply chain problems, Seroka explained that companies switched from buying from “just in time” to “just in case.” This meant that some containers were not needed as quickly as others and were sitting in the port waiting for importers to pick up. While they did not collect any fees, the threat of dwell fees at the Port of LA was successful in motivating shippers to pick up containers expeditiously, as there was a 61 percent reduction in sitting containers.

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