Union Tribune

March 21, 2003 

Former Coast Guard officer warns of high stakes in container security

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - Thirteen months after U.S. Customs officials launched a program to prevent terrorists from using containerized cargo to attack the country, the risk remains great, in part because the government has skimped on security spending, a former Coast Guard officer told a Senate committee Thursday.

"This is a high-stakes issue for which we are dedicating very few resources," said Stephen E. Flynn, who retired as a Coast Guard Commander and is now a fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank.

Flynn warned that if terrorists used a container to explode a weapon of mass destruction in the United States, the government might be forced to suspend trade with other nations until it could persuade a shaken public that it was able to avert other attacks.

Even a few days of closed borders could cripple manufacturing and retailing systems built on just-in-time deliveries of components and merchandise, Flynn said.

Flynn said that while the international trading system has become a marvel of nimble transportation, "the essence of the problem is that there is no security built into" the system, which in the last fiscal year saw 7.2 million shipping containers come into the United States.

Flynn spoke at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, whose chair joined him in sounding the alarm.

"I believe this is our single greatest vulnerability," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine. She said cargo containers "offer a frighteningly simple and anonymous way to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States."

The committee received a guardedly upbeat report from Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security within the new Department of Homeland Security.

Asked about the progress of the 13-month-old Container Security Initiative, Hutchinson responded, "It's working well." But he immediately added, "I say that with reservations."

Hutchinson then acknowledged problems, including the limited reach of a program designed to screen U.S.-bound cargo in foreign ports and the containers' vulnerability to tampering.

Technology is available to make containers tamper-proof or at least to signal inspectors that the container has been tampered with, said Hutchinson. But "The issue is whether that technology is affordable," to the shipping industry.

While Congress has earmarked $500 million for security enhancements from more staff to better technology, Flynn and Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon said much more will be needed.

O'Hanlon said cargo inspection staffs and the Coast Guard should be expanded far beyond what the government is proposing. At Customs, he said, "You've got to increase by several fold the size of the work force."

Hutchinson said that while only about 4 percent of containers are currently inspected, the government has developed sophisticated techniques to identify and screen the most risky shipments.

Flynn expressed doubt about the techniques. "I'm worried about a blanket statement that we're getting the right ones, don't anybody worry about it," said Flynn.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., noted that the danger is not limited to coastal port cities. He said it also threatens transportation hubs like Chicago, which dispatches containers on buses and trains to points across the country.

"I believe much more can be done to ensure cargo safety in all modes of transportation," Fitzgerald said.

Collins said she was concerned that terrorists could tap into organized smuggling networks that have long used containers to bring illegal aliens and drugs to the United States.

"Based on a training manual seized in England, we know that al-Qaeda has targeted smugglers for recruitment," she said.

Also on Thursday, the staff of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., released a letter in which he accused the Bush administration of dragging its feet on efforts to protect the nation's infrastructure, from trade facilities to energy systems, communication's networks and water systems

"Though much lip service has been given to the importance of protecting our critical infrastructure, actual progress appears to have been exceedingly slow," Lieberman wrote to Hutchinson's boss, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.