Despite technology, cargo vulnerable

Despite great strides in inspecting cargo containers bound for the United States, the shipments remain a threat to U.S. security, a top Homeland Security Department (DHS) official told Congress March 20.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Customs Service has deployed new technology to inspect cargo before goods leave a foreign port. Radiation devices are being used once cargo arrives in the United States. And a manifest of what's in a container must be transmitted to U.S. authorities before a ship leaves port.

It is the right strategy, according to Asa Hutchinson, the DHS' undersecretary for border and transportation security. But, he noted, it is a daunting task: The price is substantial, and it is difficult to deploy counterterrorism measures at many unsophisticated ports.

"The technology is there," Hutchinson told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "You can make a container tamper-proof or at least [make it] clear that it has been tampered with. You can equip it with technology for transponders so you can track containers."

A public/private partnership has been formed that includes 2,000 companies helping to inspect cargo containers. Twenty countries have agreed to ratchet up inspections, but many ports remain vulnerable to smugglers transporting contraband.

Hutchinson described an incident last year at an Italian port where an Egyptian-born Canadian national was discovered hiding in a container bound for Montreal with maps of airports, airport security badges, a computer and phone cards.

Italian authorities concluded the man was not connected to al Qaeda, but Hutchinson said that is an example of how vulnerable sea cargo systems are.

"There are ports that do not have the sophistication for inspection," he said. "These are ports that are of much higher risk. We have to make sure we give them incentives. If they want to bring goods into the United States, they are going to have to upgrade their systems."

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection inspects about 4 percent of the 21,000 containers that arrive daily at U.S. ports from foreign nations. But much more work needs to be done, according to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate panel.

"Whether the threat is nuclear, chemical or biological, [and] whether it comes from a terrorist network such as al Qaeda or a terrorist state such as Iraq, cargo containers offer a frighteningly simple and anonymous way to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States," she said.

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