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Nation's Ports Soon to Tighten Cargo Checks

by Paul Shukovsky
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - July 15, 2004

But some say radiation monitors for containers aren't enough

Unlikely as it seems, imagine the devastation if terrorists smuggled a small nuclear bomb in one of the thousands of shipping containers lining Seattle's waterfront and set it off.

The conflagration would surpass even the scope of the Sept. 11 attacks. Even a relatively small, 1-kiloton blast at Terminal 46 would devastate much of Seattle's core, and the resulting firestorm and radiation exposure would spread the damage for roughly two miles in every direction, according to physicist Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thousands would die, and such an attack would likely prompt ports around the globe to close, paralyzing world trade and leading to empty store shelves.

(Karen Ducey) A truck carrying a container just loaded off a ship at the Port of Seattle passes under a giant X-ray machine called VACAS, which looks for suspicious cargo and is operated by the Customs and Border Protection agency. Before 9/11, such a scenario was almost unimaginable. Now -- though federal agents say there are no specific terrorist threats against Seattle -- the U.S. government is preparing for the possibility of such attacks against American ports.

With that in mind, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security will soon install radiation detectors at ports around the nation, including the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. The monitors, which work by detecting various types of radiation coming from trucks or containers carrying atomic or dirty bombs, medical isotopes and natural sources, already are in use at border crossings with British Columbia and at the ports of Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Newark, N.J.

The ultimate goal is that 100 percent of the cargo coming into the United States will pass through a radiation portal monitor, according to the Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency. The project will cost about $200 million over two years.

The agency also has begun new container security programs to try to stop suspicious cargo in foreign ports and to prevent containers from being tampered with on the way to America.

Critics generally praise the theory behind these container-security programs, but they say the government hasn't spent enough money or devoted enough manpower to protect the nation.

Border security expert Stephen Flynn recently told a congressional committee that inadequate resources mean our "maritime transportation system remains a very soft target for America's enemies to exploit. I have little doubt that al-Qaida possesses the means to identify those users of the maritime transportation system that U.S. authorities currently view as low-security risks.

"I am deeply concerned that despite the efforts made by the U.S. government to date, only an extraordinary instance of good luck would allow U.S. authorities to detect a compromised 'low-risk' user in time to foil a terrorist attack," said Flynn, a former staff member on the National Security Council and a retired Coast Guard commander.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who agrees with many of Flynn's concerns, said radiation portal monitors should be overseas, inspecting containers before they get to America. But that idea, said Murray, would require "good relationships with those countries."

Customs and Border Protection doesn't install radiation portal monitors overseas, but the Department of Energy does. Its Megaports Initiative has so far installed radiation detectors at five overseas ports. Only one Asian port, in Sri Lanka, is among the five. The other four are European NATO allies of the United States.

Murray is not alone in believing that more radiation monitors should be placed at overseas ports.

"What happens if somebody finds something (in Tacoma)?" said Mike Zachary, director of planning and logistics at the Port of Tacoma. "If there is an incident, how do we handle it? Will it shut down the terminal? We don't want it to be like it was with the airports after 9/11," he said referring to the grounding of aircraft throughout the country.

So far, the shipping industry hasn't identified any significant delays that come from programs at U.S. ports to check cargo for radiation.

John Ficker, president of an organization composed primarily of shippers called the National Industrial Transportation League, said that if radiation portal monitors slow supply chains and become burdensome, that's a problem. But to date, he has heard no complaints.

In addition to using radiation monitors, Customs and Border Protection officers can also physically inspect cargo. However, little of that is done because it would impede the flow of commerce and is considered unnecessary.

Of the approximately 795,000 containers that passed through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in a year, "we were lucky if we looked at 5 percent," said Tracie Fukuhara, who oversees container security for Customs and Border Protection in Seattle and Tacoma. Fewer than 5 percent are emptied and searched. And 5 percent to 10 percent are X-rayed, she said.

Officers instead rely on the manifests, bills of lading and other information, which they analyze with a sophisticated computer program to identify questionable containers.

Cargo manifests received before a ship is even loaded overseas are reviewed through an automated targeting system. The software used to check cargo considers such risk factors as changes in port or pattern of shipments. The targeting system gives a list of the highest-risk cargo, said Fukuhara.

"If we receive a cargo manifest that's incomplete -- like the cargo description reads just 'parts' or has no description at all -- we'll issue a 'Do-Not-Load order' " at the overseas port, said Fukuhara.

Fukuhara said there have been instances where a "Do-Not-Load order" was ignored overseas, then her agency issued a "Do-Not-Unlade order" that prevents the containers from being removed from the vessels when they arrive in Seattle.

Customs and Border Protection tries to examine targeted shipments with a giant X-ray machine called VACAS as they are being unloaded, said Fukuhara. "That's ideal. However we can't do all the ships around the clock. When we don't get to all the targets, they have to be put in the yard in secure locations" until they are X-rayed, she said.

If an X-ray reveals something suspicious, officers take everything out of the container and inspect the cargo and the container itself.

Fukuhara said she has seen steady progress in container security over the last few years. "We didn't have VACAS machines prior to 9/11," she said. "Now we have three for Seattle and Tacoma."

Inspecting containers and using radiation monitors are just part of an overall strategy. Customs and Border Protection also is working overseas to protect U.S. ports from nuclear weapons.

Under the Container Security Initiative, teams of Customs and Border Protection officers are working in 32 overseas ports where they review cargo manifests before loading to identify suspicious containers for physical inspection.

In addition, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program works with importers and shipping lines to identify security weaknesses along the entire supply chain and seek to rectify them by controlling access to the goods and screening the personnel who handle them.

Flynn praises the programs as conceptually sound, but worries about whether the administration is spending enough to properly carry them out.

"Announcing ambitious security initiatives without providing adequate resources to make them credible is dangerous business," said Flynn in testimony last August before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Flynn said inspectors are getting no formal language or other training to prepare for their jobs in foreign ports.

"Given that the teams are so small -- only eight inspectors in Hong Kong, which is the world's largest port -- they are able to inspect only the tiniest of percentages of containers," he said.

The customs agency is apparently addressing at least some of Flynn's concerns. The container initiative's funding has increased from $61 million to $126 million, said agency spokesman Barry Morrissey.

However, the money will have to be spread over about 47 ports by the end of the year. Some of the new money is earmarked to extend the time agency officers spend overseas to one to two years. And officers are also now given language training, with an attempt to make at least one member of the team fluent.

Flynn found fault with the trade partnership program, too.

The customs-trade partnership ends up taking a "trust-but-don't-verify approach," Flynn said, since the agency doesn't have enough agents to make sure shipping companies are taking the security steps they say they are taking.

Customs and Border Protection is hiring more supply-chain specialists, agency spokesman Pat Jones said. It's not a function of understaffing, said Jones. Rather, the new specialists are currently in training.

Still, Murray, who has been a leading advocate Capitol Hill for improved container and port security, said not enough is being done or spent on the issue.

"Every time we have tried to get funding for this, we've had to fight them every step of the way. To me, it doesn't feel like a top priority of this administration."

Paul Shukovsky, P-I Reporter
Nation's Ports Soon to Tighten Cargo Checks
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 11, 2005

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