Tech may plug cargo security

A top Customs Service official told Congress June 11 that the government must push back the borders of the United States by using technology to check high-risk cargo containers before they leave a foreign port.

At a hearing on President Bush's plan to create a Homeland Security Department, Customs' Deputy Commissioner Douglas Browning said that technology and information are essential for a successful container security strategy — one of the biggest security holes facing the United States.

"To put it simply, the more technology and information we have, and the earlier in the supply chain we have them, the better," Browning told the House Government Reform Committee's National Security, Veterans' Affairs and International Relations Subcommittee. The panel listened to a day of testimony about the prospect of putting multiple agencies, including Customs, under one umbrella agency to fight terrorism.

Customs already has moved ahead in ratcheting up security checks for containers — one of the major shipping methods used worldwide. Last October, authorities found a suspected al Qaeda operative living inside a shipping container. He was heading for the Canadian port of Halifax, with airport maps, security badges and an airport mechanic's credentials.

Customs is now checking at least 15 percent of all cargoes, according to Browning. By January, every Customs inspector will have a pocket-size device that can detect radiation. Customs officials have also worked out deals with major shippers who will provide their own security systems and guarantee them in exchange for swift passage across the borders. And June 5, Customs issued a request for information on embedding technology in containers to detect chemical or radioactive devices.

"Ultimately, oceangoing cargo containers are susceptible to the terrorist threat," Browning said. "We should not wait for such a scenario to occur. As the primary agency for cargo security, U.S. Customs should know everything there is to know about a container headed for this country before it leaves Rotterdam or Singapore for America's ports," he said.

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