Report notes looming container crisis

| 8/6/2003

Six million shipping containers arrive in the United States each year, but only a few are ever inspected as they move to their destination on trucks, ships and trains, according to a recent report by 60 Minutes.

The segment featured Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard Commander and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has spent the last two and a half years studying security at U.S. seaports.

According to Flynn, nobody can say with any confidence what's in those 6 million containers. He said information provided by shippers is often unreliable. It's not unusual for the contents of a container to be labeled "freight all kinds."

And with 16,000 containers coming into U.S. ports every day, fewer than 2 percent are opened and inspected by the U.S. Customs Service.

"It is physically impossible to check every container without essentially stopping global commerce," said Flynn.

The most alarming part, Flynn says, is that it wouldn't be difficult for a terrorist to track a container with a global positioning system and detonate a weapon hidden inside – even a weapon of mass destruction. Terrorists have already used shipping containers to smuggle themselves into the country, he noted.

Al Qaeda linked to shipping businesses

Meanwhile, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. James Loy, told 60 Minutes there's evidence that terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden are directly involved in the shipping business.

"We are pretty certain that there's some traceability to al Qaeda. And believe me, we are very, very interested in those vessels," Loy said.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner was asked what the impact would be if a bomb were to go off in one of these containers.

"It would be devastating," he said. "If that should happen, the system will stop. It's like commercial aviation after Sept. 11. The system will stop. We're not going to allow another container to offload in the United States if something like that happens."

Efforts aim at increasing security

To improve the chances of intercepting a weapon of mass destruction, customs has issued 4,000 radiation detectors to its agents. The device sends out an alarm if it gets within several hundred feet of nuclear material.

Some containers go through a giant X-ray machine called "Vacis," which can see through the steel walls of containers and outline any differences in density within the shipment – which customs calls an "anomaly."

In addition, customs has started getting information in advance as to what's in the containers. But that’s just paperwork.

To make matters worse, Flynn said, the federal government invests no money in seaports to provide security.

“In some ports, it's just a rent-a-cop who may be paid minimum wage who's basically checking who comes in and out,” Flynn said. “Most ports, the best you get is a chain link fence with maybe some barbed wire."

Legislation now before Congress would change that. The Seaport Security Act would mandate background checks and comprehensive security plans – and give authorities the power to turn away any ship that doesn't give detailed and timely information on crew and cargo.