You've Got Mail. But Is It Safe?

Because I spent most of my career at American Airlines, my antenna is always up when it comes to safety and security -- and it's even higher after marking the 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies. In the years since, Americans have worked hard -- in government, the private sector and elsewhere -- to make our country safer.

You will thus be astonished and troubled to learn that every day nearly a million packages enter the United States from abroad without being checked for dangerous and illegal contents. This security loophole exposes Americans to terrorist risk and to criminals mailing lethal opioids and counterfeit goods into our country.

The Trade Act of 2002, enacted less than a year after 9/11, mandated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) receive advance information (electronically, in a document commonly called a manifest) on all packages, in fact all cargo, entering the nation. Private express companies such as FedEx and UPS, as well as passenger airlines that carry cargo, quickly complied with these requirements. But the Trade Act treated the government's own logistics firm, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), differently, deferring regulations to mandate electronic manifests on packages transferred from foreign postal services to the USPS. The regulations were never issued, in part because of questions about foreign compliance, leaving us all vulnerable.

Given the well-publicized declines in USPS letter-mail volume, and the continued growth of UPS, FedEx, and other express companies, you may think this is minor. But things have changed - USPS now handles 90 percent of all incoming international packages. That means that only 1 in 10 parcels gets the scrutiny the law requires.

If you want proof that advance manifest data on foreign shipments is necessary, you can look back to a little-publicized but frightening close call in 2010, when CPB intercepted a box from Yemen containing an explosive device disguised as a printer cartridge. Al Qaeda was sure it could outsmart us by designing the package to elude standard security measures. X-rays could not detect it. Fortunately, global intelligence cooperation worked and disaster was averted. Mostly, it was luck, coupled with an electronic manifest on a private express carrier flight that made it possible to quickly find that package.

But the risk goes far beyond terrorism. Teenagers can go online and without much trouble reach the "deep web," where synthetic drugs such as fentanyl are readily available and waiting to be shipped from China, Russia, India, and elsewhere, right into the mailbox at home. There's no doubt that the screening loophole also feeds the worsening opioid epidemic. Counterfeit products of all kinds, from pharmaceuticals to knock-off wristwatches, also travel this way.

The continuing rise of e-Commerce points to further growth in individual shipments from abroad. It would of course be impossible to inspect every box, which is precisely why an analysis-based system is both necessary and effective. And arguments that the USPS can't afford the added cost burden don't hold up, because this digital technology is both inexpensive and widely available. Moreover, according to a 2015 study, requiring advance electronic data on postal shipments could produce $1.1 billion per year in revenue, in the form of customs duties and fees that go uncollected today.

Improved security since September 11, 2001, has not come from one or even a small number of measures, but from scores of changes in laws, public processes, greater coordination among interested parties, and more. Closing this postal loophole is one more critical step. It's past time for President Obama and Congress to tell the Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department to require foreign postal services to submit customs and advance electronic data on parcels bound for the U.S., and for the U.S. Postal Service to comply. Closing this security gap will help prevent dangerous and illegal goods from entering the country, and help keep citizens safe from foreign terrorists sending bad stuff in a plain brown wrapper.