LAWMAKERS: CONTAINER SECURITY PROGRAMS FAR FROM DEVELOPED
Some lawmakers and industry officials believe the United States’ initiative to better secure ocean containers and seaports from terrorist infiltration is still far from complete.
“I believe this is our single greatest vulnerability,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing regarding the status of container security on March 20.
It’s estimated that 21,000 containers arrive in U.S. seaports each day. “Whether the threat is nuclear, chemical or biological — 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,” Collins said.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said persistent weaknesses in container security and the ability for these boxes to enter the United States through land-border ports means that this issue is “a concern in the heart of America.”
Lawmakers did commend the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection for its increased focus on container security since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Specific programs include the Container Security Initiative, advance manifest filing for inbound containers, and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.
Asa Hutchison, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for border and transportation security, told lawmakers these programs are “a huge leap forward in our targeting capabilities.”
Still, the senators questioned the adequacy of Customs and Border Protection’s measures to find weapons of mass destruction hidden inside containers, especially when smugglers still sneak drugs and illegal immigrants into the country. “It’s amazing that people can set up housekeeping in a container,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Hutchison said container security programs are still in the development phase. He emphasized the need to partner with the shipping industry on security. “We can target and inspect, but unless there’s integrity in the supply chain” with the help from the industry, “then all we do would have a minimal impact,” he said.
“I’m fully convinced that it’s the right strategy,” Hutchison said. “I think it’s a strategy that will have proven results.”
However, security experts and port officials warned lawmakers that a terrorist attack via an ocean container might not wait for these security program to become fully developed.
“Resources are limited and we’re not moving very fast,” said Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies for the Council of Foreign Relations. Flynn is credited with spearheading Operation Safe Commerce, an evolving program to promote development and testing of end-to-end container security technology.
Capt. Jeffrey W. Monroe, director of the Department of Ports and Transportation for Portland, Maine, said one of his biggest concerns with container and port security is the continued lack of coordination and intelligence-sharing between federal agencies.
“On my desk, I have a plethora of paper designed to help me secure the port,” Monroe said. “These rules cover everything from the height of fences to the height of lettering on badges. They are issued by agencies without regard or knowledge of what other agencies are regulating.”
If an attack should occur today, Flynn said the container system would likely shut down, crippling not only the national economy but also the global supply chain.
“Once it’s turned off it’s hard to turn back on,” Flynn said. He added that the government would have a difficult time to restore the public’s confidence in containers in the aftermath of a terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction.