Seaports remain critically vulnerable, panel told

| 3/27/2003

The nation's seaports remain "critically vulnerable" to terrorists seeking to smuggle weapons of mass destruction — or themselves — into the United States, several port security experts told a Senate panel last week, the National Journal’s Technology Daily reports.

"There are vulnerabilities in our sea cargo-container system that have the potential for exploitation by terrorists," Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, said during a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "In fact, most experts believe a terrorist attack using a container is likely."

Hutchinson cited a need for greater international port security standards.

"There are ports out there that do not have the sophistication of the detection equipment, they do not have the investment that's made, they do not have the background checks for the port workers," Hutchinson said. "These are the ports that are at much higher risk. What we have to do is make sure that ... if they want to bring goods into the United States, then they're going to have to upgrade their systems."

Current programs inadequate

Meanwhile, Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is now director of the Council on Foreign Relations' task force on homeland security, said the government’s Container Security Initiative and Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism programs are steps in the right direction, "but they have limits."

He said CSI's system for targeting at-risk containers is "built primarily around [cargo] manifest information, which is historically the most unreliable data in the whole commercial trade industry."

In January 2002, U.S. Customs launched CSI to prevent global containerized cargo from being exploited by terrorists. Some 200 million sea cargo containers move annually among the world's top seaports, and nearly 50 percent of the value of all U.S. imports arrive via sea containers, the Customs Service says.

Flynn added that the C-TPAT pilot program has no system to monitor compliance among the 2,000 participating companies who can take a "fast lane" into the United States after taking steps to ensure security throughout the cargo supply chain.

"Everybody who's signed up [for C-TPAT] knows that U.S. Customs does not have the manpower to come check the books," Flynn said. "You've got to give that thing some teeth if it's going to be credible."

Another problem is a lack of international standards on container security, according to Flynn.

"This is a high-stakes issue for which we are dedicating very few resources," he said.