When is a legally “voluntary” security program not really voluntary?  When business realities make it involuntary.

The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT, began in November 2001, two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  More than a decade later, this U.S. supply-chain security program has over 10,000 members and continues to grow.  Each member commits to meeting security standards established by the Customs and Border Protection agency, which manages the program.  In exchange, each member gets a reduced likelihood of time-consuming inspections and delays along the global supply chain.

Many C-TPAT members will only establish significant business relationships with other C-TPAT members.  Further, in the fast-moving global supply chain, delays mean lost business. So maintaining C-TPAT status has become a business necessity in many cases, even though it legally is a voluntary program.

This means that losing C-TPAT status as a result of an audit or a security incident can impose severe costs on a company.  There have been over 2000 occasions on which C-TPAT members have been suspended or removed from the program, and indications are that the frequency of C-TPAT suspensions or revocations has grown.  CBP appears more inclined these days to suspend a company and less likely to restore that status quickly.

As the program has matured, this emphasis on compliance is sensible, and CBP is to be commended for ensuring that the program is a real security program and not merely a “paper program.”  But CBP also must be careful to ensure that suspension and revocation decisions are made consistently across C-TPAT membership and that decisions are made in a timely way and in accordance with transparent procedures.  There is anecdotal information that consistency and transparency are not yet hallmarks of CBP’s compliance efforts.

For C-TPAT members, these developments put a premium on compliance with C-TPAT standards, developing good relationships with CBP, and moving quickly in the wake of an adverse audit or a security incident in order to maintain C-TPAT status or ensure fast restoration after a suspension.