Probe finds major flaws in security at U.S. ports

March 31, 2006|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Serious weaknesses in port security programs continue to hamper U.S. efforts to detect potential threats in the millions of cargo containers that enter the country each year, according to a report released yesterday detailing a three-year Senate investigation.

"America's supply chain remains vulnerable to the proverbial Trojan horse," said Sen. Norm Coleman, chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee that conducted the investigation.

Besides deaths and injuries that could be caused by a smuggled nuclear or radiological weapon, or by terrorists who enter the country by hiding inside containers, the economic cost would be enormous, Coleman said.

According to a Congressional Budget Office report, an attack at the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could cost the nation's economy $150 million a day.

Some of the programs highlighted in the report summarizing the committee's investigation are included in port security legislation before Congress. Lawmakers say those initiatives are good concepts that have been flawed in practice.

The report found that two of those programs, the Container Security Initiative and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, have made progress in the past year. But the fledgling efforts have a long way to go, it said.

"I feel confident that we're safer today than we were yesterday," Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, said after a hearing at which the study was released. "But I'm not confident that we're as safe as we should be."

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael P. Jackson said his agency is making progress toward creating "second-generation" programs to improve cargo security worldwide.

"Securing our borders requires us to dig deeper," Jackson said.

Lawmakers and security experts have long complained about the Homeland Security Department's slow pace in beefing up security at the nation's borders.

The committee's investigators found that that advances have been made since the Government Accountability Office, in reports released last year, criticized some of the security programs. But that progress has been limited by such things as uncooperative officials abroad and untested methods of analyzing what might constitute a threat, the report said.

For example, the Container Security Initiative - which stations U.S. personnel at overseas ports to help detect dangerous cargo before it is shipped to the United States - is inspecting less than 1 percent of containers.

Of cargo containers flagged as "high-risk," which are supposed to be inspected before leaving a port, 17.5 percent are being checked, the report said. And there are no minimum standards for cargo inspections.

The committee's report said that container initiative "remains the right idea" for bolstering cargo security but that changes are needed immediately.

The customs-trade partnership program, an effort to encourage shipping companies to submit tighter security plans in exchange for faster trips through inspection sites and Customs, might be less effective than the administration thinks, the report said, because the U.S. government often relies on security information from the company involved without indepently assessing it.

A more rigorous review is required to gain other privileges, including quicker cargo inspections.

Although most shippers pack their containers with goods from more than one source, federal investigators typically look at one supplier for each company during reviews to assess security, investigators said.

A third program discussed in the report, the Automated Targeting System, was initially designed to screen cargo for drugs but was modified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to target nuclear weapons and other dangerous materials. The program uses data such as information from a ship's manifest to review cargo containers' contents and whether the contents pose a risk.

The report found that if a container isn't identified as high-risk through the program, it is unlikely to be inspected.

Because the Automated Targeting System method has never been independently tested, it is impossible to know how well it assesses risks, investigators said.

Only one of several containers used to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the country last year through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was identified as high-risk by the program, the report said.

GAO studies released this week noted the slow pace of installing radiation monitors at border checkpoints and seaports. GAO investigators were able to smuggle radioactive material into the country from Canada and Mexico using forged documents.

Coleman said the container security and customs-trade partnership programs could evolve into a successful system for protecting U.S. borders and seaports. He said the programs should remain part of port security legislation being considered by Congress because they show promise.

Many lawmakers and experts are pushing the Bush administration to adopt screening and inspection methods being used in a pilot project in Hong Kong.

In that project, all containers shipped from Hong Kong are scanned by a gamma-ray detector and a radiation monitor. The initial picture of the contents could be sent around the world for review by officials at the container's destination port.

The pictures are also archived so that if a bomb or other dangerous material is found after the container has left the port, investigators can trace its path.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is scheduled to tour the Hong Kong project this weekend. Jackson said he is "highly optimistic" that a version of the program can be used in the United States.

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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