Cargo security on agency hit lists

Customs says U.S. must use technology to check high-risk cargo containers before they leave a foreign port

A top U.S. Customs Service official told Congress this month 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.

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 inside a shipping container heading for the Canadian port of Halifax.

Customs is now checking at least 15 percent of all cargos, according to Browning, and by January 2003, every customs inspector will have a pocket-sized 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.

"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," Browning said.

George Weise, former Customs commissioner and now vice president of global trade compliance at Vastera, a technology solutions company that helps firms move goods across the borders, said 50,000 container cargos arrive at U.S. ports daily. "They are taking the right approach — introducing technology and pushing the perimeter as far away as possible," Weise said. "The idea is to get the containers inspected before they are loaded on ships, X-ray them and see if there is tampering from the time the container is packed onward."

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department recently finished testing electronic seals, or e-seals, designed to help secure cargo containers at U.S. ports and border crossings. An e-seal is a radio frequency device about the size of a deck of cards that transmits shipment data as it passes a reader device and indicates whether the container it is attached to has been tampered with.

E-seals "consist of a bolt that both locks the container when inserted into the seal body and serves as an antenna; a seal body that contains a computer chip for encoding information; and a battery for transmitting that information when queried by a reader," said Chip Wood, DOT senior transportation specialist for the Secretary's Office of Intermodalism.

The test, conducted in the Pacific Northwest through DOT's Intelligent Transportation Systems program, began in the summer of 2000. By the fall of 2001, containers destined for Canada were regularly affixed with e-seals at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.

Most of the testing has been a success, but e-seals have limited signal strength and must be read at line-of-sight distances of less than 70 feet. "This makes it difficult to read these particular seals in marine terminals or the holds of ships where the containers are stacked in close proximity, where the signal may be blocked," Wood said.

DOT is likely to fund another round of e-seal tests that would build on the findings and technology platforms identified during the Pacific Northwest test, Wood said.

"The concept of developing an electronic seal was great; however, it's essential that we carry on research to better understand cost and service benefits as well as interoperability," said Dan Murray, director of research for the American Trucking Associations Foundation.

"Without this research, it would be chaotic in the marketplace," he added.

***

Battening down the hatches

Federal officials say the time has come to address a serious security risk: cargo containers entering the country at ports and borders. Two government agencies have initiatives under way to close this gap:

* The U.S. Customs Service is giving its inspectors pocket-sized devices that can detect radiation. Customs also would like to embed technology in the containers themselves to detect chemical or radioactive material.

* The Transportation Department recently tested electronic seals to secure cargo containers. The seals include computer chips for encoding information about container contents.

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