Daily Breeze

March 30, 2006

Cargo containers inspected at 'staggeringly low' rate
Government efforts to keep terrorists from exploiting the system are riddled with blind spots, congressional investigators say in a report to be released today.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- The number of high-risk cargo containers inspected before entering the United States is "staggeringly low" and government efforts to keep terrorists from exploiting the system are riddled with blind spots, congressional investigators say in a report that will be released today.

The study by a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee is the latest to raise questions about whether the Bush administration and Congress have done enough to improve security at seaports, border crossings and other transportation hubs since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Experts say the system is vulnerable to the smuggling of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon, or a direct attack by terrorists intent on crippling the U.S. economy. An attack that shut down the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex would take $150 million a day out of the economy, the Congressional Budget Office concluded in a separate report.

Most of the concern is focused on the millions of boxcar-size cargo containers that flow into U.S. seaports and across land borders each year.

Despite efforts to inspect more of the containers before they reach the United States, only a miniscule number are examined abroad, the system used to identify potentially troublesome cargo is unreliable and a program that allows shippers to avoid some inspections is not closely monitored, concluded the three-year subcommittee investigation.

"If we think that the terrorists are going to ignore our vulnerabilities and not find the kinks in our supply chain, we are mistaken," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., the panel's chairman.

Earlier this week, the subcommittee revealed that undercover investigators had brought enough radioactive material across the Mexican and Canadian borders to potentially make two radiation-spewing "dirty bombs." It also criticized the slow pace of installing radiation detectors at U.S. seaports and initiatives to thwart the smuggling of nuclear materials abroad.

"We do not yet have a maximum effort on what everyone agrees is the biggest threat to the American public," former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Keane, who headed the federal commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks, told the subcommittee Tuesday.

Coleman and other lawmakers want the Department of Homeland Security to embrace technology being used at the port of Hong Kong that scans every container passing through two gates there. While the Bush administration has been skeptical of the program, which involves technology developed by San Diego-based SAIC, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is traveling to Hong Kong this weekend for a demonstration.

The study that will be released today took a first-hand look at operations at 18 ports and border crossings here and abroad, including the San Ysidro entry point and the Port of Los Angeles. It follows up on a similar report by the subcommittee last year.

While the investigators noted some improvements, they called their overall findings "troubling."

A central goal of the Homeland Security Department's strategy is to intercept dangerous cargo before it reaches U.S. shores, but the probe found major flaws in the effort.

The Container Security Initiative, which has placed American personnel at 44 international ports, is inspecting a "disturbingly low" number of containers identified as high risk, the study said.

Slightly more than 37 percent of high-risk shipments were examined abroad, the investigators found. They attributed the low rate to "mission fatigue," given the large number of containers, lack of time and resources, uncooperative foreign port operators and "mistrust" of the system used to identify potentially risky containers.

That system is based on unreliable data, such as cargo manifests, the investigators found. They also said it cannot incorporate last-minute intelligence and has never been tested or validated.

Investigators also cited gaps in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which allows importers to avoid some inspections if they agree to take steps to secure their supply system. Only 27 percent of the thousands of companies participating have had their security claims validated by Customs and Border Protection officials.

Moreover, when granting validations, officials examine only one supply chain for each company. Many large companies work with hundreds of suppliers.

However, a subcommittee staffer said the program "has dramatically improved" since last year, when investigators first identified the problems.