The interagency effort to stop drug distributors from sending opioids through the mail is failing to implement key reforms meant to shore up loopholes that allow such illicit materials to enter the country, according to a new review of the program.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in coordination with the U.S. Postal Service and State Department, is ignoring parts of a 2018 law aimed at cracking down on international drug shippers, according to a Homeland Security Department inspector general report.
The approach is leaving the nation more vulnerable to dangerous goods, such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, entering the country.
The 2018 Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act required foreign countries to provide "advanced electronic data" on all international packages before they reached the United States.
“Advanced electronic data,” or AED, provides USPS and CBP with information about the contents of international packages before they reach the United States.
A requirement for the data was already imposed on international packages coming into the country through private carriers like FedEx and UPS, but the mandate first began applying across the board to international packages arriving through USPS starting in 2021 due to the 2018 law.
USPS collects AED from its international partners and sends it to CBP, which then places holds on packages it wants to further inspect. The Postal Service then pulls those mail pieces, and various others, and gives them to CBP for evaluation. CBP then either detains the package or clears it for further processing and delivery.
Between fiscal 2018 and 2022, CBP made 184,000 drug seizures at USPS’ nine international mail facilities.
Still, the IG found CBP has not followed through on key provisions of the STOP Act due to a failure of leadership and a misunderstanding of the requirements. The AED frequently contains inaccuracies, the auditors found, and CBP and USPS take few steps to validate it.
Two of the nine international facilities placed holds on zero pieces of mail between 2019 and 2021. A third facility only did so in two cases in fiscal 2021, while a fourth only examined slightly more than half of the packages that had been identified to be pulled.
The IG found CBP had not put anyone in charge of key implementation steps, had not issued any thorough guidance and that few employees went through related training.
While CBP Chief Accountability Officer Henry Moark said after the report’s preliminary release that the auditors were mistaken in saying the agency did not provide adequate oversight of the AED, CBP officials told the watchdog that USPS was better suited to monitor the data’s quality.
The IG also cited CBP for granting waivers to countries, exempting them from providing AED, without proper justification or clearance.
The Biden administration issued 148 waivers in 2021 and 128 in 2022. Cargo and Conveyance Security, a CBP office, approved the waivers without getting permission from agency leadership. CCS used blank letters on USPS letterhead to sign off on the waivers, the IG found.
CBP never recorded its justifications, nor sent them to Congress as required. The agency failed to examine its own data before approving waivers and offered them to countries that were previously among the top senders of seized mail.
Additionally, international mail facilities were never notified of which countries had waivers and therefore could not conduct the required extra screenings of packages originating from them.
“By not using its internal data to evaluate the risk before granting a waiver, CBP may inadvertently grant AED waivers to high-risk countries,” the IG said.
Congress passed the STOP Act as the opioid epidemic was ravaging communities throughout the country and international traffickers—primarily from China—were increasingly using the U.S. Postal Service to send synthetic opioids like fentanyl to American customers.
While the law is still not fully implemented, it appears to have had a dramatic impact in shifting smuggling efforts away from the mail and toward the southern border.
Compared to 2018, seizures of synthetic opioids through the mail dropped by 71% and 93% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The law appears to be having unintended consequences as well, however. After it went into effect, about 97% of interdictions were taking place in the domestic mail stream, and officials said they were increasingly finding substances like fentanyl at the southwest border.
Despite the large number of countries with waivers, DHS told Congress that as of 2022 just 5% of international mail was coming from countries not in compliance with the STOP Act.
DHS seized more than 11,000 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal 2021, according to agency data, more than doubling the total from the previous year and quadrupling it from fiscal 2019. It nearly doubled that total again in fiscal 2022, seizing more than 20,000 pounds.
The IG cautioned that DHS is potentially failing to seize more materials at international mail facilities.
“By not effectively conducting and evaluating its screening operations, addressing AED quality issues or fully implementing the STOP Act, CBP limited its ability to identify new threats in the mail environment,” the IG said.
Moak at CBP said the agency’s top mail screening priority is preventing weapons from winding up in the hands of terrorists. He decried the IG’s report as containing “inaccurate and misleading statements,” saying it has better coordination with USPS and State than the review intimated and his agency has addressed AED quality issues.
Still, CBP agreed to assign officials responsible for meeting the goals of the STOP Act, better train its employees and create a clearer process for granting waivers.
Earlier this year, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced a bill to sunset any STOP Act waivers within five years.
This story was first published on Government Executive.