San Diego Union Tribune

May 27, 2005

Customs commissioner tells Congress port security is improving

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner defended his department's cargo security efforts yesterday, saying they had improved safety at the nation's ports and borders despite flaws cited by congressional investigators.

However, Bonner acknowledged that cargo ships used to smuggle dozens of illegal immigrants into the Port of Los Angeles earlier this year were part of a Customs security program that the investigators criticized as lax.

The two smuggling incidents riled lawmakers, particularly since the stowaways managed to slip through tighter security imposed at the port since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the first instance, a crane operator spotted the Chinese immigrants. In the second instance, private security guards discovered them.

"Fortunately, that Trojan horse held people seeking a better way of life, not terrorists trying to destroy it," Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at a hearing on the cargo security programs. "What is particularly disturbing about this case is they were not caught because of any of the extensive security that was in place.

"We cannot continue to rely on luck or alert crane operators for the safety of our country."

Customs and Border Protection fined the owner of the ships, NYK Lines, $63,000 for the two incidents, according to Lloyd's List, though the agency said it had no evidence that the company was aware of the smuggling.

The carrier was a participant in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT, which enables importers to avoid some inspections if they agree to take steps to secure their supply chain. Customs has granted the privilege to thousands of companies without adequately verifying their security procedures, congressional investigators concluded.

"The one link that was C-TPAT there was the ocean-going carrier, in other words the company that (was) actually carrying the container" to Los Angeles, Bonner told a Homeland Security investigative subcommittee.

The cargo containers were loaded at a Chinese port that does not participate in a second Customs program – the Container Security Initiative, or CSI, which seeks to identify and inspect high-risk cargo before it is shipped to the United States. However, at least one of the ships stopped in Hong Kong, which has joined the initiative.

The congressional probe also criticized aspects of the CSI program, including a failure to inspect every container identified as high-risk before it is sent to a U.S. port. At least one of the containers in which the Chinese immigrants were hiding had been targeted for further investigation, according to press reports after the incident.

"The weakest link in maritime security is the cargo container," Collins said, noting that security experts have said the boxcar-sized crates could be used to smuggle a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon into the country.

Bonner said that Customs has taken steps to improve both programs. It has decreased the benefits available to companies participating in C-TPAT whose security claims have not been validated, and is stepping up efforts to review them.

A higher percentage of high-risk cargo is being inspected at foreign ports than is noted in the congressional studies, he added.

"I believe that these initiatives are working. I am convinced that America is safer today because of them," he said.

Both allow the United States to exert some control over security at foreign locales where it lacks regulatory authority.

Lawmakers said they understood that the programs were still in their formative stages and that it is a daunting task to identify security risks among the more than 9 million cargo containers that pour into the United States each year.

"I would still maintain that we have a safety net with some holes in it," said subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander, recommended several ways to strengthen cargo security programs. They included using independent auditors to check supply chains, developing high-tech container tracking devices and endorsing a pilot program that scans every container passing through two cargo terminals in Hong Kong for radiation and other contraband.

"The voluntary nature of C-TPAT and CSI translates into it being a 'trust, but don't verify' system," he said.

»Next Story»