Containing the Container Threat

During the final debate between President
George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, Kerry highlighted the fact that
about 90 percent of seaborne cargo containers arriving at US ports are
not inspected for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The senator was wrong. Actually, 95 percent aren’t inspected.

The presidential challenger further pointed
out that little of the cargo shipped by air to destinations throughout
the United States is searched for explosives and other WMD.

Rancorous debate over these porous gaps in
the nation’s border and coastal security flared during the frequently
heated exchanges in both chambers of Congress as the 2005 homeland
security budget was being crafted. The largely Republican-fashioned
financial plan for homeland security was passed in early October. The
disagreeing accountants were pretty much evenly divided between
Democrats wanting more money for things like cargo container radiation
detectors, and Republicans wanting to cut or phase in funding over five
years for admittedly recognized plugs needed in America’s security

Mic Dinsmore, chief executive of the Port of
Seattle and a member of the CEO Roundtable of the NationalDefense
Transportation Association, mentioned one of these unplugged holes in
an essay he wrote in early October provided by his office.

“Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge met
with a group of Seattle officials recently and told us he’s sleeping
better at night because our country is better prepared than before to
defend against a terrorist attack. When I spoke with him later, I said,
‘I’m glad you’re sleeping better, Mr. Secretary, because I’m not.’

“I meant no disrespect,” Dinsmore said,
noting, “I have tremendous regard for Ridge and for the difficult job
he’s doing. But here’s what keeps me awake at night: Worldwide, there
are 50,000 ships, carrying 9 million containers, calling at 3,000

In the US, we have 361 river ports and
seaports. Every year, we get 50,000 visits from 8,100 foreign ships.
Every day, 21,000 containers enter the US. We can verify the contents
of only about 4 percent to 6 percent of those containers. And it would
require only one rogue container to bring commerce to its knees.”

Dinsmore posited: “Imagine what would happen
if a biological, chemical, or some other kind of weapon arrived in one
of our harbors. Every American port would be affected as authorities
worked to determine the extent and the source of the threat. Global
trade could practically be shut down. And we don’t have the systems in
place to get our seaports up and running again. Our airports were
operating a few days after Sept. 11, 2001. Reopening seaports would
take substantially longer.

“We need to act on maritime security now so we can all sleep better at night,” Dinsmore declared.

No rest

Insomnia, though, may be a problem for the
foreseeable future. On Oct. 14, days after the 2005 Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) budget exited the nation’s capital en route to
the White House, DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin reported in a
largely classified report, Effectiveness of Customs and Border
Protection’s Procedures to Detect Uranium In Two Smuggling Incidents,
that “improvements are needed in the inspection process to ensure that
weapons of mass destruction … do not gain access to the US through
oceangoing cargo containers. Detection equipment and search protocols
and procedures are the two areas where improvements would enhance the
effectiveness of the inspection process.”

According to government officials involved in
preparing for nuclear terrorism inside the United States, radiation
monitors won’t necessarily detect emissions like that given off by a
“suitcase nuke” if it is properly shielded. Physical inspection, they
say, is nearly always required in such instances. But that means paying
for more and better-trained inspectors. But the money isn’t there for
the numbers of inspectors required to examine every cargo container.
Moreover, knowing which containers to search, or those that are at high
risk, requires accurate, real-time intelligence. And that, too, remains
a huge problem.

In recent years, even the Nuclear Emergency
Search Team (NEST)—the 30-year-old, quasi-secret federal agency that
has as its primary mission finding and disarming nuclear weapons in the
hands of terrorists inside the United States—has failed to find nuclear
bombs hidden in cargo containers shipped into the US during mock
counter-terror exercises, according to officials familiar with the
drills. And NEST uses classified mimics of real nuclear weapons that
emit the types of radiation a real atomic bomb would.

Indeed, while in charge of NEST in the
mid-1990s, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, in the first-ever interview granted by
a NEST director, told me that trying to find a nuclear bomb is like
“looking for a specific needle in a haystack of needles.” She added,
gloomily, that it’s not “a question of if … it’s a question of when” a
nuke will be smuggled into the United States and detonated.

Since then, many counterterror officials have
said the same thing—so many times that it’s now a well-worn expression.
In 1995, it was novel.

Losing ground

Ervin’s report came on the heels of Congress’
approval of the 2005 DHS budget. Some of the most heated debates during
its consideration concerned providing money to install
radiation-detection portals at every US port—an initiative that was
whittled down by implacable Republican members of Congress.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Jim
Turner (D-Texas) fought hard for nearly tripling the amount Congress
finally appropriated. Turner especially wanted enough funds to pay for
the immediate placement of detectors at all ports. Turner had earlier
told HSToday that “the amount needed to put these radiation portals at
every port is a drop in the bucket.”

“Now, if you really believe, as I do, that it
is a very real possibility that Al Qaeda will try to get a nuclear
device—a dirty bomb or an actual nuclear bomb—into this country through
a shipping container, then you’d want to put all those portals out
there now!” said Turner. “It would cost an extra $200 million dollars
this year to do it, and that’s not a big investment for my value,
considering the catastrophic nature of this threat.”

Despite his efforts, Republicans instead
authorized a three- to five-year plan to deploy the portals. The Senate
defeated Byrd’s similar proposal for immediate deployment.

At present, CBP has a five-year plan for
deploying approximately 2,000 monitors at locations around the country,
based on its assessment of the nuclear smuggling threat, focusing on
nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons material, radiation-dispersal devices
and other illegal or illicit radioactive material.

Last year, Congress provided $125 million for
port security grants. The Bush homeland security budget proposed to cut
port security funding by 62 percent. Upon adoption of an amendment last
March, the Senate version of the budget resolution assumed that $275
million would be appropriated for port security grants in fiscal year
2005. But the bill taken up by the Senate provided only $150 million.

Republicans did eventually agree to a $32
billion 2005 homeland security budget—$896 million more than the
president’s spending request and $2.8 billion more than the fiscal year
2004 amount. Included is $5.3 billion for securing the nation’s borders.

Regulatory ignorance

There are other problems with port security
that have been cause for concern. Last March, during a hearing on the
state of maritime security by the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation Committee, the revelation that cargo container
inspection regulations were being ignored sent shudders through

The charges were made by Mike Mitre, director
of Coast Port Security, Longshore Division of the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), who testified that, despite his
union’s demands, West Coast marine terminal operators refused to
implement port security measures and, “even more shocking and
inexplicable,” in Mitre’s words, abandoned basic measures after Sept.
11, 2001.

This testimony came a day after DHS Secretary
Tom Ridge stated that the department would work with port authorities
and businesses to develop solutions like tamper-proof seals.

But, according to Mitre, operators had ceased checking cargo seals, and he provided letters from union members to prove it.

“Few containers or vessels are screened or
inspected before being unloaded by longshoremen,” Mitre said,
emphasizing that “many of the containers do not go through any type of
a security screening process before being loaded on a truck or railcar
bound for the interior of the United States.”

Presently, Coast Guard regulations do not address inspecting and sealing “empty” containers.

DHS officials, though, say enhanced funding
provided in the 2005 budget for the Container Security Initiative’s
(CSI) Smart Box Initiative will go a long way to addressing this
problem, which officials acknowledge in private. The Smart Box
Initiative is a core component of CSI. Its goal is deployment of
smarter, “tamper-evident” containers that combine electronic security
with mechanical seals so that shippers will be aware of any intrusions
or disturbance of the container.

Together with the results of technology
testing, Operation Safe Commerce—a pilot program analyzing security in
the commercial supply chain and testing solutions to close security
gaps—DHS hopes to have valuable information to assist in developing
performance standards for container security.

Critics, however, say that in order for the
Smart Box Initiative and the performance standards to be effective,
regulations will have to be put in place to mandate their use, and that
is a hot button for port operators and businesses already stung by the
cost of implementing a host of other port-security requirements.

Greg Baroni, a Unisys corporate vice president and president of the company’s Global Public Sector, told HSToday
that “it was through our work with Operation Safe Commerce that we
really, really, became acutely aware of the vulnerability we face with
the cargo that moves through the ports.” Baroni added that “visibility
[of cargo] is what we think is so desperately needed from port to

Under the CSI program, teams of CBP officials
deployed to work in concert with their host nation counterparts
accomplish the screening of containers that pose a risk. Nineteen of
the top 20 ports have agreed to join CSI and are at various stages of
implementation. These 20 ports account for approximately 66 percent of
sea containers shipped to the United States. CSI operational seaports
include: Rotterdam, LeHavre, Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Antwerp, Singapore,
Yokohama, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Göteborg, Felixstowe, Genoa, La Spezia,
Busan, Durban, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and Port Klang.

“Through CSI, potential suspect containers
are targeted and identified before being loaded onto vessels,”
according to DHS statements.


The seriousness of container inspections
cannot be overstated. Last January, Gary M. Bald, inspector-deputy
assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said,
“Intelligence we have certainly points to ports as a key vulnerability.
… I can’t be more specific as to the threats of attacks, [but] we have
received information that indicates there is an interest [by

While many problems remain in cinching up
container, coastal and border security, DHS is nevertheless making
great strides in making America safer. With a new budget that’s more
than the Bush administration had asked for, officials are hoping the
additional money will accelerate the fixes that are needed to securely
plug the remaining holes in the nation’s security dikes. HST 

Container concerns

In October 2001, Italian police discovered a
suspected Al Qaeda hijacker inside a shipping container during a
“technical inspection” of a ship from Port Said that had docked at the
container port of Gioia Tauro. The container had its own toilet. En
route to Canada, the hijacker, Razik Amid Farid, an Egyptian, was found
with a laptop computer, a satellite phone, cameras, a Canadian
passport, other identity documents, including a certificate showing he
was an aircraft mechanic, and maps of North American airports.

A year earlier, Hong Kong port inspectors
discovered 26 illegal immigrants from mainland China hiding in a
shipping container bound for the United States after instruments showed
carbon dioxide emanating from the container.

The CIA was worried about terrorists
smuggling themselves into the United States inside cargo containers
well before Sept. 11, 2001. In late 1988, a top secret report said the
CIA had intelligence on a handful of Islamic extremists who planned to
infiltrate the US via cargo ships bound from Panama. It isn’t known
whether they succeeded or what their intent was once in the country.

Closing the border gaps

Some gaps in port security don’t necessarily
need more money thrown at them. For instance, on Sept. 30, Congress’
investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported
to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Committee on
Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-NJ),
chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime
Transportation, that DHS’s revised port security program “holds
promise, but the Coast Guard’s implementation approach is putting that
promise at increased risk, particularly for the GIS [geographical
information system] component.” This was the component that would
digitally map each port and its vulnerabilities.

The program bogged down as previous
assessments and changing security arrangements forced the Coast Guard
to change its own assessments.

This program now includes four components:
GIS and three specific types of assessments, including a compilation
and synopsis of other assessments already conducted in the port; an
assessment of the port’s maritime vulnerabilities by former Navy
special operations forces; and the option for specific assessments of
critical infrastructure or operations as requested by the local Coast
Guard captain of the port.

These assessments are more tailored to
specific needs than previous assessments. The Coast Guard plans to give
all 55 of the most strategic ports an assessment using either the
previous approaches or the current approach. Coast Guard officials have
not yet determined, though, when the GIS will be completed and made
available. It’s a lapse that has come in for criticism by the GAO.

As the Coast Guard is facing these problems
for the GIS component, it is proceeding to carry out the other three
assessment components at individual ports. As of early August 2004,
these assessment components had been performed at 12 ports. Local Coast
Guard officials responsible for security at those ports indicated that
the individual components generally appeared to be of value in security
planning activities. However, because specific functional GIS
requirements had not been defined, Coast Guard officials were unable to
determine what further information they needed.

Finally, beyond the GIS component, GAO
charged that the program as a whole lacks a fully developed plan
detailing costs, schedule, and overall management strategy. The lack of
such a plan may negatively affect the usefulness of the assessment
program in the long term. It was an evaluation with which Coast Guard
officials agreed.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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