Progress Made in Using Electronic Data to Detect Illegal Opioid Shipments, but Additional Steps Remain
GAO-20-229R: Published: Dec 18, 2019. Publicly Released: Dec 18, 2019.
Each day, more than 130 Americans die from opioid overdose. To help stop opioids from coming into the U.S. through the mail, a 2018 law requires the Postal Service to transmit data on international mail shipments to Customs and Border Protection. CBP then uses this data—e.g., the recipient’s address and description of contents—to target mail for inspection to find opioids.
While the Postal Service and CBP have made progress implementing the law’s requirements, the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t yet issued regulations to clarify the Postal Service’s data transmission responsibilities. We recommended steps to help prioritize this effort.
International mail awaiting inspection
A pile of packages
What GAO Found
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have taken some steps to implement requirements included in the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act of 2018 (STOP Act of 2018). For example, the act requires USPS to transmit to CBP certain percentages of the advance electronic data (AED)—such as the contents’ description and shipper’s name—that USPS collects from foreign postal operators. CBP officers analyze the data to target shipments that might contain illegal opioids. Once targeted, USPS presents the shipments to CBP for inspection. The act also required the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to promulgate regulations detailing USPS’s AED-transmission responsibilities by October 24, 2019.
- AED Transmission Performance: Although USPS did not transmit the required percentages of AED to CBP from January 2019 through August 2019, its transmission rates have generally increased. USPS and CBP plan to improve transmission performance by, for example, leveraging agreements with foreign postal operators. DHS was required to promulgate regulations that would clarify key details about how USPS should transmit AED to CBP; however, according to officials, DHS was still working through competing priorities and thus has not yet completed drafting the regulations. Once drafted, DHS must then submit the regulations to the Office of Management and Budget for further review. Establishing a time frame for completing its drafting of the AED regulations and submitting them for further review can help DHS prioritize the effort. Until the regulations are ultimately promulgated, USPS’s AED transmission responsibilities will remain unclear.
- Steps to Assess and Improve AED Quality: USPS and CBP have each taken steps to assess AED quality, but key efforts are ongoing. For example, USPS conducts a monthly assessment to determine the extent to which all AED data it receives are complete. USPS then coordinates with foreign postal operators to address identified data quality issues. CBP plans to support USPS’s quality-improvement efforts by informing USPS of any issues identified through CBP’s assessment approach, which it is currently developing.
- Costs and Benefits of Using AED: In February 2019, CBP initiated a broad analysis as part of the rulemaking process for its AED regulations. This analysis will assess the costs and benefits of using AED to target international mail at all international mail facilities that currently receive the data. CBP previously completed such an assessment during a pilot at USPS and CBP international mail facilities at John F. Kennedy International Airport and found several benefits of using AED versus other methods, including notably higher seizure rates for narcotics.
- Presentation of Targeted International Mail to CBP: USPS did not meet its goals for presenting targeted international mail shipments to CBP for inspection from January 2019 through August 2019; however, USPS’s presentation performance is generally improving. USPS officials told us that USPS plans to implement a variety of technology enhancements intended to improve performance. Although USPS has not met its goals, CBP officials told us USPS’s performance is presently close to the target goal and thus has not substantially affected CBP's ability to use AED to target international mail shipments for inspection.
Why GAO Did This Study
The Congress has called upon USPS, CBP, and the U.S. Department of State (State) to collaboratively improve the nation’s ability to detect and interdict international mail shipments that contain illegal opioids—a drug that kills more than 130 people every day in the United States.
The STOP Act of 2018 also includes provisions for GAO to assess issues related to international mail USPS receives. This report examines: (1) the extent to which USPS has transmitted required AED to CBP; (2) steps USPS and CBP have taken to assess or improve AED quality; (3) what is known about the costs and benefits of using AED; and (4) the extent to which USPS has presented targeted international mail to CBP for inspection.
GAO reviewed relevant laws and regulations as well as USPS and CBP documents, such as monthly AED transmission and presentation performance reports for January 2019 through August 2019. GAO also interviewed officials from USPS, CBP, and State.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that DHS establish and implement a time frame for completing its drafting of the AED regulations and submitting them to the Office of Management and Budget for further review. DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendation and described steps the department has taken toward fully implementing the AED regulations.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: Congress has called upon the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to collaboratively improve the nation's ability to detect and interdict international mail shipments that contain illegal opioids. For example, USPS is required by statute to transmit to CBP certain advance electronic data (AED) it receives-such as the recipient's name and address-to help CBP target high-risk shipments for inspection. Similarly, DHS was required to promulgate regulations by October 24, 2019 that would set forth in detail USPS's AED data transmission responsibilities. In December 2019, we reported that the department had not yet done so. Before promulgating the regulations, DHS officials noted that the department must first develop and submit draft regulations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for further review. OMB generally has up to 90 days to complete its review. DHS officials said that OMB's review process may affect when and how the regulations are ultimately promulgated. Establishing a time frame for completing its drafting of the AED regulations and submitting them for further review can help DHS prioritize the efforts. Until the regulations are promulgated, USPS's AED transmission responsibilities will remain unclear. Thus, we recommended that DHS establish and implement a time frame for drafting the AED regulations and submitting them to OMB for review. DHS subsequently drafted the regulations and, in August 2020, submitted the draft regulations to OMB for further review. Taking these steps moves DHS closer to promulgating the AED regulations, thereby helping to clarify USPS's AED transmission responsibilities, which meets the intent of our recommendation.
Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should establish and implement a time frame for completing its drafting of the AED regulations and submitting them to the Office of Management and Budget for further review. (Recommendation 1)
Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Office of the Secretary