Better inspections needed for container cargos

Two senators warn that ports remain vulnerable to a terrorist attack because of deficincies in an information system that helps government inspectors target high-risk shipping containers.

Richard Skinner, Homeland Security Department’s acting inspector general, released a 6-page unclassified summary on August 2 after conducting an investigation over the movement of oceangoing containers through the international supply chain. The abbreviated report said improvement was needed in the container data supplied to the Automated Targeting System (ATS) and that physical controls over containers also needed improvement.

In a press release issued Thursday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and ranking member Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said more needs to be done to improve the way Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials examine containers coming into U.S. ports.

“Today, we cannot inspect every container without bringing trade to a standstill,” Collins and Lieberman said in a prepared statement. “For that reason, an effective targeting system is important to focus the use of our inspection resources. While CBP had to roll out this system quickly following the 9/11 attacks, it must strive to continually enhance their capabilities. We urge DHS to address the deficiencies identified in the IG report as quickly as possible.”

Used by the National Targeting Center and other field units domestically and overseas, the ATS is a system that processes advance manifest and passenger information to detect anomalies and determine the high-risk passengers or cargo for further inspection.

“ATS is a flexible, constantly evolving system that integrates enforcement and commercial databases,” said Robert Bonner, CBP’s commissioner, during a Senate hearing on U.S. container security initiatives in May.

“ATS analyzes electronic data related to individual shipments prior to arrival and ranks them in order of risk based on the application of algorithms and rules,” he added. “The scores are divided into thresholds associated with further action by CBP, such as document review and inspection.”

About 25,000 oceangoing containers arrive at U.S. seaports every day, or more than 9 million annually.

In his report, Skinner also wrote that the overseas segment of the supply chain -- the handling, movement and loading of goods on a U.S. bound vessel at a foreign port -- remains “most problematic” because it is outside the United States government’s jurisdiction. “Improved security over this segment of the supply chain requires leveraging the authority of foreign governments through diplomacy,” he wrote.

CBP officials agreed with all of the inspector general’s recommendations for improvement, according to the report.

Collins and Lieberman said they have previously warned DHS officials, including Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary for the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, that the targeting systems’ limitations diminished the effectiveness of container security programs.

“The possibility that weapons of mass destruction could be imported into our country constitutes a worst case scenario,” the senators added. “Port security must continue to be a top homeland security priority.”

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