Thinking Inside the Box

Security experts are getting serious about cargo containers as a key protection against terrorists

March 26, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

It is one of the most simple and brilliant pieces of transportation engineering in history. It's a box, and it is the reason that port security is at once such a vexing and potentially such a solvable problem.

In the wrong hands, with the wrong cargo aboard, that box - better known as a shipping container - could become an astonishingly accurate weapons delivery system.

The reason is this: These containers are loaded in far-flung places all around the world and, if things go according to the script, not opened until their final destination, perhaps a location in the midst of a large American city.

That final destination would be known when the container was loaded and at every step along its journey. So if a weapon were placed aboard at some point, the container could conceivably deliver its deadly cargo with stunning precision.

This is why most of the minds thinking about port security are not concerned with the now-defunct proposal for U.S. port operators from Dubai, or longshoremen with criminal records, or even holes in the fences around ports. They are thinking inside the box.

And many of them are at the University of Maryland, College Park, one of the nation's centers of cutting-edge work on port security.

"What are we afraid of? What are the justifiable fears?" asks Bill Lahneman, associate director for programs at the Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies.

"The Dubai company [would have run] port operations. Customs searches containers, not port ops, and the Coast Guard more or less protects the approaches to the port," says Lahneman, who coordinates a program designed to make the U.S. intelligence community aware of academic research on security threats, and another project on science, technology and public policy. "Port operations has regulations and security forces aimed at anti-theft type things, protecting warehouses.

"But is that what we are really worried about, theft? Or terrorists in some small boat charging the port and shooting weapons at it?" he asks. "I don't think that's the central feature. What we are really worried about is things coming in those containers which may be weapons of mass destruction and may be detonated somewhere in the country."

"Intermodal" is a crucial term here, referring to the fact that the containers that fill cargo ships are carried by a variety of haulers. Containers are often loaded at a factory somewhere in the world, pulled by trucks to a port, loaded into cargo holds, then shipped to another port where they are unloaded and put on freight cars for a rail shipment, then put back onto trucks for a ride to their destination.

The strength and weakness of this system - from a security standpoint - is that nowhere along the way are these containers unloaded. No one sees what's inside. A generation ago, a longshoreman might notice if there was a bomb in the cargo hold. Now, all he sees is another shipping container.

This is what makes them such ideal guided weapons delivery systems. But it also means that if you can ensure that they are initially loaded with proper goods, and that the container is not tampered with along the way, you have a pretty secure system. University of Maryland researchers say they are close to finding a means to detect container tampering.

Such a system requires international cooperation. Having the United States try to construct some security wall to seek to keep out dangerous cargo is not the way to go, the Maryland experts agree.

Jack Gansler, vice president for research at the University of Maryland, says that the first step is having what he calls a "trusted agent" at the port where the containers are loaded, to ensure that what is supposed to go into the containers is put in them.

"Say you have a container coming from the port of Singapore," says Gansler, one of the top officials in the Department of Defense from 1997 to 2001. "If you had a trusted agent there sign that it has been inspected, and what is supposed to be in it is in it, and from that point on you have a guarantee that it has not been tampered with all the way through, never opened, then I think you are pretty safe.

"You need this combination of a trusted agent when the container is sealed, an anti-tampering device, and knowledge of what's inside - those three pieces," Gansler says.

Other countries are eager to participate in such a system because, as University of Maryland engineering professor Hani Mahmassani says, "These containers are the lifeblood of the global economy."

Says Gansler: "International cooperation is a key piece of this, and I generally believe that everyone does care about it. People in Dubai want world transportation to continue. People in China do. Every nation, every state, every industry wants international trade to continue. A few terrorists might want to disrupt it, and that's what all the nations are worried about."

Mahmassani, who leads Maryland's Center for Intermodal Freight Transportation Mobility and Security, agrees.

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