Securing the homeland: One container at a time

Two years after the worst terrorist attacks against the United States, many officials fear the next big attack could come by sea, not by air.

That is why government officials want new ways to deal with homeland security's biggest security gap: Six million container cargos destined for domestic ports each year that carry everything from car parts to Barbie dolls — and, potentially, weapons of mass destruction.

On the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials are still struggling to close the cargo loophole. The task is not easy and the technology is not yet there.

With 90 percent of annual U.S. imports arriving by ship, it is a Herculean task to track them and make sure terrorists do not smuggle a weapon in a giant cargo box.

"No weapon is beyond the planning of terrorist groups, particularly the al Qaeda network," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said last month, announcing an agreement with the Dutch government to install radioactivity detectors at Europe's largest seaport in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

But that is only one small step in a worldwide hunt to identify high-risk container cargos and keep them out of the United States. The Bush administration has poured billions of dollars into airline security and is now turning its attention to maritime security, said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

"There's no question...we didn't give [maritime security] as much attention," Mineta said in August after touring the Port of Savannah, Ga. "But now that aviation security is pretty well under control, [federal agencies] are looking at port security."

The new focus comes not a moment too soon. Some intelligence experts say terrorist groups may own as many as 15 ships. Others say terrorists could disguise themselves as a freighter's crew and sneak into the United States, carrying weapons to launch an attack.

To stop them, the federal government has provided $337 million in security grants to the nation's ports and plans $105 million in additional funds later this year.

The money is being used for items including video cameras at ports, enhanced computer systems and even dogs to help find contraband or evidence that container cargos are being used for contraband. Handheld radioactive detectors, much like those deployed in the Netherlands, also have been bought, and inspections have been extended to trucks that transport cargo after it reaches the United States.

But faced with developing far more sophisticated technologies that can track containers, the government is earmarking far too little money for the effort, critics say.

"There is a gaping hole in our national security, and it must be fixed before enemies of the United States try to exploit our weakness," Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) said when he unsuccessfully tried to increase maritime security funding.

"An airplane cannot approach the coastline of the United States of America without us identifying it," he said, but "we cannot do that with respect to shipping."

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) agreed. "If I were a terrorist, I wouldn't be targeting an airline next," he said. "I'd be targeting a port where you could do significant damage."

The difficulty facing the United States and other countries is policing the entire supply chain — and that means finding technologies to do the job, said George Weise, former U.S. Customs Service commissioner and now a vice president at Vastera Inc., a global trade solutions company.

"Customs is looking at a needle in a haystack, and they are trying to shrink the haystack," Weise said.

If a terrorist weapon is detonated at a U.S. port, it would wreak havoc on global trade and the world economy in addition to any human casualties, said Robert Bonner, commissioner of the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. A 2002 Brookings Institution study found that such an attack could cost up to $1 trillion.

"Information is one of the most important keys to our ability to increase security without stifling legitimate trade and travel," Bonner said.

Good information, he added, allows authorities to target high-risk cargo and scrutinize it. Cargo from a country known to harbor terrorists is flagged, for example, and so are containers with suspicious manifests.

"The separation of high risk from no risk is critical because searching 100 percent of the cargo and people that enter the United States would unnecessarily cripple the flow of legitimate trade and travel to the United States," he said.

DHS has instituted strategies to tighten security. Ships bound for the United States must provide a detailed cargo list 24 hours before loading at the originating port, giving authorities a chance to scrutinize databases for anything unusual.

In addition, all ships must provide 96 hours' advance notice of their arrivals and detailed data on crew, passengers, cargo and voyage history. The extra time enables DHS' new National Vessel Movement Center to spot suspicious people, shipments or other anomalies using databases that compile and compare information.

The maritime industry supports the enhanced security measures despite an estimated $1.25 billion price tag this year alone to upgrade security at 150 U.S. public ports.

"We think it's a very good idea to know what's coming into the port well before it ever gets there," said Maureen Ellis, communications director for the American Association of Port Authorities. "The million dollar question is, 'Where's the money coming from to make these changes?' We've gotten a bit of federal funds over the last year, but only about 10 percent of what's going to be needed."

Companies are adopting their own stringent security systems, such as using databases to detail their bills of lading and transmitting them to customs officials. They may also seal containers before transit, earning preferential treatment during shipping.

A bill of lading, which is issued by a carrier to a shipper, lists cargo and specifies terms of delivery.

More than 20 countries have signed agreements with the United States to institute border security procedures. They include stationing customs agents at foreign ports and screening workers for criminal backgrounds. The goal is to push the border as far as possible from the continental United States.

But those are only the first steps. DHS and industry officials are working to find an effective, low-cost way to deal with security issues.

Imagine safe shipping lanes across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where container cargo boats travel along an imaginary highway, tracked by sensors and satellites. The satellites could detect if electronic seals on containers are broken and the contents changed. Indeed, varied technologies are emerging to help seal containers, including chemical markers (see "Licking the virtual envelope," Page 22) and sensors that signal if a seal has been broken.

Even secret military technology is being considered to help keep out terrorists. A device emitting an ultra-wideband digital signal — classified until a few years ago — can be placed inside a container, allowing a sensor to detect if security has been breached (see "Ultra-wideband dealing in arms," below).

Since 1990, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been heavily involved in developing technology for both airport baggage checking and cargo entering U.S. ports, said director Anthony Tether.

"The technology for doing it does exist," he said. "If we wanted to do it, we could do it. The problem is that the technology hasn't progressed to the point where we can do it fast enough. We bring in 6 million containers — the real issue is, how do you pick out of that 6 million which ones you are going to inspect further?"

One idea developed by DARPA calls for using neutron bombardment to pinpoint whether cargo has been shifted or anything has been added. "It's all available, but it's not that it doesn't come at a cost," Tether said.

It is a tough job, experts admit. The United States has more than 1,000 harbor channels, 361 ports and 3,700 terminals handling passengers and cargo. The U.S. marine transportation system moves more than 2 billion tons of domestic and international freight, transports 134 million passengers by ferry and hosts more than 7 million cruise ship passengers.

Securing ports will take a wide-ranging partnership that includes the private sector. Major companies have already stepped up to the plate because they want no interruption in the supply chain that would keep their goods out of markets and cost them money.

Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, which imports and exports computers, is working on its own systems to ensure that its cargo is secure, said Jim Ganthier, director of HP's business development for homeland security.

The goal is to integrate existing technologies and create new ones. The company is testing an electronic system to make sure the bill of lading matches a container's cargo by checking and rechecking manifests electronically at various points along the journey.

"A lot of companies are getting together," Ganthier said. "We are attempting to put the best and brightest minds [on the] solutions. It is very doable. We're not very far away [from] taking existing technologies and marrying them into end-to-end solutions."


  • FCW Perspectives
    remote workers (elenabsl/

    Post-pandemic IT leadership

    The rush to maximum telework did more than showcase the importance of IT -- it also forced them to rethink their own operations.

  • Management
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    Where does the TMF Board go from here?

    With a $1 billion cash infusion, relaxed repayment guidelines and a surge in proposals from federal agencies, questions have been raised about whether the board overseeing the Technology Modernization Fund has been scaled to cope with its newfound popularity.

Stay Connected