Magazine article National Defense

Sneak Attack: Plan to Protect U.S. Ports Homes in on Contraband

Magazine article National Defense

Sneak Attack: Plan to Protect U.S. Ports Homes in on Contraband

Article excerpt

It's a doomsday scenario long speculated by such fiction writers as Tom Clancy: a terrorist smuggles a nuclear weapon through a U.S. port in a shipping container. More than four years after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security still is working to implement a comprehensive plan to thwart such an attack, officials say.

"Terrorists are not going to prevent us from going about our business," vowed Robert Bonner, Customs and Border Protection commissioner, at a trade symposium before his retirement last year. However, in a meeting with reporters afterwards, Bonner acknowledged technological hurdles--as well as complexities negotiating with overseas trading partners--make implementing the plan a difficult proposition.

The challenge facing the agency, importers and the shipping industry is to prevent weapons of mass destruction, would-be illegal immigrants and contraband from entering U.S. ports--including overland traffic from Canada and Mexico--without disrupting the flow of goods, officials said. DHS and the Defense Department issued an eight-part National Strategy for Maritime Security.

Every year, 9 million shipping containers, holding everything from cars to cardigans, arrive from more than 150 different countries and pass through U.S. ports. Preventing the entry of contraband, including material that could be used for weapons of mass destruction, falls on the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The container security initiative now underway is DHS' answer to the nuke-in-a-suitcase scenario.

The container security initiative aims to identify threats before they arrive in ports.

While the initiative also may uncover narcotics, stowaways, currency and a variety of different weapons, DHS said it considers the nuclear threat "preeminent." A nuclear weapon detonated at a U.S. port would have devastating consequences, a DHS fact sheet said. The initiative's goal is to beef up intelligence and inspections overseas to intercept such weapons before they make it to U.S. shores.

The container security initiative has a five-prong approach. They include: using intelligence and automated information to identify and target suspect shipments, pre-screening those containers before they arrive in U.S. ports, using detection technology to quickly identify potential threats, and using tamper resistant seals.

Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, said that, two years after the initiative was announced, Customs and Border Protection has yet to check any of the five items off the list.

CBP officials said that the), are on the verge of overcoming technological hurdles that will allow shippers to secure containers and allow them to pass speedily through customs inspections. Many of the goals require bilateral or multi-lateral negotiations with foreign trading partners or suppliers of goods, said Bonner. The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism is an initiative calling for importers to comply with baseline standards to ensure security, in the supply chain, particularly in terms of containers. The World Customs Organization's (WCO) framework of standards to secure and facilitate global trade asks governments to employ safeguards at their ports.

However, the challenge of improving security in the supply chain--from overseas factory to a U.S. port--begins abroad where the goods originate, and that involves negotiating with foreign governments and manufacturers.

Fifty foreign ports were expected to be in various stages of the WCO frameworks implementation by the end of 2005, Bonner said. Most of these are high-volume ports in developed countries that ship the majority of goods imported into the United States. Twenty major ports in countries such as Japan, China and the Netherlands account for two-thirds of the goods arriving in the United States. Complications arise in the smaller ports located in developing nations with limited financial and human resources, Bonner said. …

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