Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service
Tom Ridge

Former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is urging Congress to close a gaping hole in the nation’s defenses that allows illicit, lethal drugs to be shipped from overseas into U.S. communities essentially without inspection.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Congress took steps to improve the nation’s security, which included greater scrutiny of shipments of goods into the country. Private carriers such as FedEx and UPS quickly began collecting electronic data — package weight, origin, recipient — from senders and provided it to U.S. authorities, Ridge said in an interview.

The data allows security personnel to generate an algorithm that can more accurately predict which packages should be inspected, he said.

However, the U.S. Postal Service does not gather such data, which means that about one million packages enter the country daily that are checked only randomly, Ridge told Insider.

“This is a gaping hole,” said Ridge, a former soldier, congressman and Pennsylvania governor who served as the nation’s first DHS secretary.

That security gap, he said, is allowing shipments of illicit, lethal drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl, to enter the U.S. essentially unchecked.

“I think it’s a national security problem,” Ridge said. “One of the weapons of mass destruction that we don’t talk about … are these lethal opioids.”

Illicit drugs, Ridge said, kill more Americans than guns and terrorists.

Last year, 324 people died from an accidental drug overdose in Louisville, up 47 percent from the prior year. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 13,000 heroin-related overdose deaths in 2015. That’s up more than sixfold from 2002. More than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, compared to about 33,000 annual gun deaths. Fewer than 100 people die in the U.S. annually from terrorism.

A local Drug Enforcement Administration official has told Insider that fentanyl typically comes from clandestine labs in China, from where it is shipped to Mexico, Canada or the U.S. People can order the substance on the internet and have it shipped to their door.

Nonprofit: Dealers prefer USPS

Americans for Securing All Packages, a nonprofit for which Ridge now serves as senior adviser, provided Insider with screenshots from social media sites including Reddit that indicate drug users/distributors encourage others to use the USPS rather than their private competitors.

Screenshot from Reddit.com

Legislation to address the issue has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House. The House bill has gained bipartisan support and has 105 co-sponsors, including two from Kentucky, though U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., is not among them.

Congressman John Yarmuth

Yarmuth told Insider via email that he supports the legislation “but also believes it must include funding so that it can be effectively implemented by the U.S. Postal Service.”

Yarmuth said he also was monitoring pilot programs to implement measures included in the STOP Act and USPS efforts to reach agreements with foreign postal services to better share information.

“This is an epidemic and Congress needs to be attacking it on all sides, including prevention, treatment and recovery, training, and cracking down on those who illegally prescribe or traffic opioids,” Yarmuth said.

David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the USPS, would not say whether the service supports the legislation, but told Insider via email that the agency “shares the goal of those calling for expanding efforts to keep illicit drugs and other dangerous materials out of the hands of the American public and maintaining the safety of our nation’s mail system.”

Partenheimer said the service already “receives data on a substantial amount of inbound shipments” before the packages arrive in the U.S., which helps law enforcement agencies identify and intercept packages with contraband.

“The Postal Service is committed to increasing the amount of mail for which it receives this crucial data,” he said. “New regulations that took effect in January 2017 that govern the exchange of international mail will enhance our ability to require foreign posts to send electronic data.”

Partenheimer also said that the USPS and Customs and Border Protection have begun a pilot program to help identify contraband, that the service is coordinating its efforts with Customs and the Transportation Security Administration and is working with foreign postal operators “to increase the proportion of electronic data on inbound international postal shipments.”

“This has been a key priority for Postal Service management and we are actively pursuing this agenda in multiple fora and bilateral negotiations with foreign postal operators,” Partenheimer said. “As it has done throughout our nation’s history, the Postal Service is committed to taking all appropriate measures to ensure our nation’s mail security.”

Ridge now works as a senior adviser for ASAP, a nonprofit that gets funding from sources including a trade association that counts as its members UPS and FedEx.

Partenheimer could not be reached to say whether the legislation would require the USPS to hire more people or raise its prices.

ASAP, according to its website, is “a coalition of families, health care advocates, security experts, businesses and nonprofits.” The organization said it did not have any partners in Louisville.

Ridge told Insider that solving the opioid crisis would require action from lots of stakeholders and might include stiffer sentences for drug dealers and manufacturers and a more concerted effort to warn the public about the dangers of the illicit drugs.

And while the STOP Act would not eliminate shipments of drugs into the U.S., Ridge said it would make it easier for U.S. security personnel to intercept them.

This story was updated to remove a quote from a source who was not authorized to speak on behalf of ASAP.

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.


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