Cargo security: A weak link?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on September 10, 2006.

Stephen Flynn's nightmares are rather specific.

In one - the one that most keeps him awake at night - a dirty bomb is loaded into a shipping container in Indonesia with the aid of a terroristic truck driver. The container, one of the millions that enter the United States each year, makes its way across the ocean and land until it reaches a Chicago-area distribution center and explodes, killing many, terrorizing more and making the entire supply chain suspect.

"I believe that we are living on borrowed time when it comes to facing some variation of the scenario I have just laid out," Flynn, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of America the Vulnerable, told the U.S. Senate a few months ago as he detailed his fears about cargo containers.

And too few people appreciate, the retired Coast Guard commander said, how vulnerable the infrastructure is to "mass disruption. "

Flynn is not the only one being kept awake by those fears.

In the five years since the terrorism attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., cargo security has been oft criticized, prompting the federal government to put into place a variety of programs - with varying degrees of success, so far - while ports, shippers and others work to secure their pieces of the transportation system.

Although the supply chain connecting America's retailers with the world's manufacturers played no part in the 9/11 attacks, the 40-foot-long metal boxes that flow in and out of the nation's ports have been identified as potential weak points in our border.

"Pre-9/11, we implicitly made the bargain to sacrifice trade security in favor of trade volume," said Gregory Bowman, an assistant professor at Mississippi College School of Law who has written about cargo security programs. "When push came to shove, we wanted to keep volumes high. There were just not that many people paying attention to it."

Perhaps fortunately for those living in the Sunshine State, Florida was one place where some attention was being paid, although out of concern for drug smuggling and illegal immigration, not fear of terrorism.

"We're still the only state where you have to go through background checks before you work at a port," said Chris Kauffmann, senior director of Terminal Operations and Seaport Security at the Jacksonville Port Authority. "What we're doing in Florida, we've been doing for a while."

A law known as Florida Statute 311.12, passed in 2001, required ports to do such things as develop security plans and bar felons from working on port property. Many of the things required by the law, such as the type of credentials workers must have, are in the process of being shaped into federal law.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville is considered one of the leaders in the state when it comes to implementing the 311.12 procedures. "Other ports in Florida clearly follow the lead of Jaxport," said Donna Gabrielle, director of the Learning Systems Institute at the Center for National Security Training and Research in Tallahassee. "Other ports around the nation are aware of the reputation Jacksonville has earned."

But what has most experts concerned isn't the security of the actual port facilities; it's the security of the cargo being brought into the country. In Florida, like at the rest of the nation's 361 ports, only a miniscule portion of the cargo is inspected by hand, which is alarming some politicians, most recently Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., whose bill calling for scanning of all cargo died in committee in April, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose identical bill passed the House.

Last year, Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Priscilla Taylor, D-Palm Beach, introduced a bill to the Florida Legislature that would lead to inspection of all containers, but later withdrew it.

But such levels of inspection are impossible, say economists, who point to the financial damage wrought when a labor dispute shut down West Coast ports in 2002. With it taking about 15 man-hours to examine a container, each the size of a mobile home, the flow of goods into the country would slow to a trickle.

"We have to avoid assuming that the right thing to do is examine all cargo," said Richard Quinn, area port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the branch of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for cargo. "That would produce the exact economy disruption that al-Qaida and other terrorists want."

Although national surveys say only 2 percent to 6 percent of containers are inspected, that doesn't include less official forms of inspections, Quinn said, such as officers checking out agricultural shipments for bugs or diseases, or even a crane operator assuring a container is empty as he lifts it off the ship.

More importantly, Quinn said, 100 percent of containers are analyzed by computer, leading some to be inspected by hand, some to be scanned by the equivalent of giant X-ray machines and some to simply be let into the country without additional checks.

"What we're able to do now is analyze all the information regarding a containers before it even gets on a ship," he said.

All shippers have to send Customs a list of what is being loaded into a container as well as the names of every company that interacts with the goods. This information is used in what is known as the Container Security Initiative, another part of which involves having Customs officers actually stationed in other countries, able to examine containers before they're loaded.

CSI works in conjunction with another Customs program, The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT, which enrolls shippers in a voluntary program where their security procedures validated by Customs and they then receive faster processing of their goods.

Containers coming into Jacksonville also receive a higher degree of screening for radiation than in other ports, with every container exiting the port having to pass through radiation monitors designed to detect abnormal radiation - a telltale sign of such things as dirty bombs or nuclear devices.

All of those programs, Quinn said, will provide the antidote to nightmares like Flynn's.

"To examine all cargo arriving here would have so many ripple effects that everyone would feel a pretty significant impact at the cash register," he said. "We don't need to examine all the containers. We need to examine the right ones. I feel that we are in the best position we've ever been to do that."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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