January 18, 2002
Customs chief outlines cargo container security plan
By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner outlined a strategy Thursday for improving the security of the millions of cargo containers that pour into U.S. ports each year, including ""pre-screening'' them for nuclear devices and other terrorist contraband before beginning their journey.
Such an approach would mark a major shift in how port security is handled worldwide. The emphasis now is on intercepting contraband at the port of arrival, though, in reality, few containers are ever searched.
By the time a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon is detected at a U.S. port, ""it could be too late,'' Bonner said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
""That's why we need to push our zone of security back further in the importation process,'' he said. ""...We should know all there is about a container that arrives in Rotterdam that is destined for the U.S. before that container leaves the Netherlands. And if an anomaly appears in that container, we should inspect it at that outbound port.''
Bonner said it was in the ""enlightened self-interest'' of other nations to cooperate given the containers' crucial role in global trade. But he acknowledged it would take a major diplomatic effort to see his proposals become reality.
The U.S. Coast Guard recently called on the United Nations International Maritime Organization to impose stricter security regulations. They include putting security officers on all ships and requiring identity checks for crew members.
Bonner called the truck-sized cargo containers ""the most critical and yet vulnerable component of the trading system.'' More than 16 million pour into the U.S. by sea, truck and rail each year, but only a small percentage are inspected.
Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest container ports in the nation, handling some 7,400 a day. San Diego's commercial sea ports don't currently handle the large containers, though a refrigerated-container facility is being built at the 10th Avenue terminal.
Bonner said the world's ports need to establish criteria for identifying suspicious containers, relying on information like cargo manifests. Such a system is already in use by the U.S. Customs Service, he said.
""It's our main method for picking the proverbial needles out of the haystacks,'' he said.
Ports in the United States and elsewhere also must deploy more advanced technology to screen containers, he said. That includes X-ray and gamma-ray technology that can examine a containers' contents, as well as small, highly sophisticated radiation detectors.
Bonner said the pager-sized radiation detectors used by the Customs Service are so sensitive that one was triggered recently at the San Ysidro border crossing by a man who had just undergone radiation therapy for a thyroid condition.
Finally, the containers themselves must be made more secure and easy to track, Bonner said. They should be fitted with global positioning systems and electronic seals that emit a signal if they are opened en route, he said.
Imposing such security measures is particularly important at the world's 10 largest ports, which handle nearly half of the containers destined for the United States, Bonner said.
""I believe that if the largest of those megaports, through their governments, adopt the concept of security for sea containers, other ports will follow as the night follows the day,'' he said.
Economic self-interest should prompt nations to adopt tougher cargo security measures, Bonner said. Some countries, like South Korea, are almost wholly dependent on sea trade, he noted.
An attack on a major port using a cargo container would cause a disruption in trade far more economically devastating than the relatively brief shutdown of air travel following the Sept. 11 attacks, he said..
But in a brief interview after his speech, Bonner acknowledged that attempts to implement a new global port security regimen would probably encounter resistance abroad.
""If this is to be done, the State Department would be playing a huge role,'' he said.