U.S. Customs Goes High-Tech for Cargo Security

By Kennedy, Harold | National Defense, November 2005 | Go to article overview

U.S. Customs Goes High-Tech for Cargo Security


Kennedy, Harold, National Defense


BALTIMORE -- The gritty docks along the Dundalk Marine Terminal, in Maryland's Port of Baltimore, are among the last lines of defense in the multi-layered, global effort by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arm to intercept illegal cargo.

CBP officers at Dundalk and similar terminals at other ports across the nation employ the latest state-of-the-art technology to inspect maritime cargo containers and trucks as they are unloading from newly arrived ships, but they face significant challenges.

A recent report by a Congressional watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, for example, criticizes the quality of CBP's detection equipment and asserts that staffing imbalances have prevented the agency from inspecting many U.S.-bound shipments.

Almost 9 million containers enter U.S. ports each year from all over the world, CBP officials told National Defense. The Port of Baltimore--the largest terminal for roll-on, roll-off ships in the nation--receives 150,000 or so during that period, said Neil P. Shannon, the agency's acting director for the facility. Each incoming ship carries hundreds of containers that must be processed.

To deal with such a vast workload, CBP has adopted what it calls a multidimensional, layered approach, which starts in the overseas ports where the ships originate, Shannon said.

The United States has signed agreements with 38 ports in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North America, where 70 percent of all maritime containers originate. The agreements--part of a Container Security Initiative, or CSI--enable CBP officers to partner with foreign officials to identify and inspect cargo they consider high-risk before it is loaded onto U.S.-bound vessels.

"CSI is a dynamic, evolving program moving rapidly forward to extend the zone of security and prescreen the greatest volume of maritime cargo destined to the United States," CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said in a recent statement. "Our goal is to have 50 operational ports by the end of 2006. Once CSI is implemented in 50 ports, approximately 90 percent of all trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cargo imported into the United States will be subjected to pre-screening."

Under CSI, ship operators are required to provide U.S. Customs with the cargo manifests of vessels bound from foreign ports to the United States, including information about all containerized shipments at least 24 hours before those containers are loaded, Shannon said.

This information is fed electronically to CBP's National Targeting Center in Northern Virginia. The center scrutinizes the manifests using an automated targeting system to determine which shipments require further inspection.

This system--developed under a $9 million, four-year contract awarded in 2003 to SETA Corporation, of McLean, Va.--uses risk-based analysis to decide which containers should not be loaded aboard the vessel at the foreign port, which need to be inspected at either the foreign or the U.S port, and which are low-risk and can shipped without further review.

As a result of this system, CBP officers in Baltimore scan only about 14 to 15 percent of the containers passing through their port, Shannon said. "We wouldn't want to scan all of the containers on a ship," he said. "That would be a waste of time."

Nevertheless, Shannon insisted, CBP officers do examine every container that they consider high risk.

In September, for example, CBP agricultural specialists in the Port of Savannah, Ga., while inspecting a personal-effects shipment from Saudi Arabia, discovered an extremely destructive beetle that could have devastated U.S. grain, cereal and seed products.

In June, CBP officers in the Port of Miami, Fla., seized 10 stolen motorcycles that were being imported from Denmark.

In 2004, CBP officers and a Coast Guard team apprehended a stowaway on board an Antiguan vessel just before it entered the Port of West Palm Beach, Fla. …

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