BALTIMORE—The gritty docks along the Dundalk Marine Terminal,
in Maryland’s Port of Baltimore, are among the last lines
of defense in the multi-layered, global effort by the Department
of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
arm to intercept illegal cargo.
officers at Dundalk and similar terminals at other ports across
the nation employ the latest state-of-the-art technology to inspect
maritime cargo containers and trucks as they are unloading from
newly arrived ships, but they face significant challenges.
A recent report by a Congressional watchdog agency, the Government
Accountability Office, for example, criticizes the quality of CBP’s
detection equipment and asserts that staffing imbalances have prevented
the agency from inspecting many U.S.-bound shipments.
Almost 9 million containers enter U.S. ports each year from all
over the world, CBP officials told National Defense. The Port of
Baltimore—the largest terminal for roll-on, roll-off ships
in the nation—receives 150,000 or so during that period, said
Neil P. Shannon, the agency’s acting director for the facility.
Each incoming ship carries hundreds of containers that must be processed.
To deal with such a vast workload, CBP has adopted what it calls
a multidimensional, layered approach, which starts in the overseas
ports where the ships originate, Shannon said.
The United States has signed agreements with 38 ports in Europe,
Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North America, where 70 percent
of all maritime containers originate. The agreements—part
of a Container Security Initiative, or CSI—enable CBP officers
to partner with foreign officials to identify and inspect cargo
they consider high-risk before it is loaded onto U.S.-bound vessels.
“CSI is a dynamic, evolving program moving rapidly forward
to extend the zone of security and prescreen the greatest volume
of maritime cargo destined to the United States,” CBP Commissioner
Robert C. Bonner said in a recent statement. “Our goal is
to have 50 operational ports by the end of 2006. Once CSI is implemented
in 50 ports, approximately 90 percent of all trans-Atlantic and
trans-Pacific cargo imported into the United States will be subjected
Under CSI, ship operators are required to provide U.S. Customs
with the cargo manifests of vessels bound from foreign ports to
the United States, including information about all containerized
shipments at least 24 hours before those containers are loaded,
This information is fed electronically to CBP’s National
Targeting Center in Northern Virginia. The center scrutinizes the
manifests using an automated targeting system to determine which
shipments require further inspection.
This system—developed under a $9 million, four-year contract
awarded in 2003 to SETA Corporation, of McLean, Va.—uses risk-based
analysis to decide which containers should not be loaded aboard
the vessel at the foreign port, which need to be inspected at either
the foreign or the U.S port, and which are low-risk and can shipped
without further review.
As a result of this system, CBP officers in Baltimore scan only
about 14 to 15 percent of the containers passing through their port,
Shannon said. “We wouldn’t want to scan all of the containers
on a ship,” he said. “That would be a waste of time.”
Nevertheless, Shannon insisted, CBP officers do examine every container
that they consider high risk.
In September, for example, CBP agricultural specialists in the
Port of Savannah, Ga., while inspecting a personal-effects shipment
from Saudi Arabia, discovered an extremely destructive beetle that
could have devastated U.S. grain, cereal and seed products.
In June, CBP officers in the Port of Miami, Fla., seized 10 stolen
motorcycles that were being imported from Denmark.
In 2004, CBP officers and a Coast Guard team apprehended a stowaway
on board an Antiguan vessel just before it entered the Port of West
Palm Beach, Fla.
Before 2001, CBP focused primarily on drug smuggling Those operations
still keep officers busy. In 2004, for example, CBP officers in
Miami seized 2,195 pounds of marijuana with a wholesale value of
$2.2 million. The marijuana was discovered behind a false wall built
into the nose of a 20-foot container from Trinidad and Tobago.
Sometimes drug smuggling is linked to terrorist activity, said
Lorne Campbell, a CBP supervisor in Baltimore. “A year ago,
we seized 3,500 pounds of a drug called khat. Three individuals
Khat is a naturally occurring stimulant derived from a shrub, primarily
cultivated in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It has two
active ingredients, both controlled substances in the United States.
What particularly concerned CBP, Campbell said, was that the proceeds
from khat sales were believed to be used frequently to fund terrorist
CBP officers board some ships as they dock, explained the agency’s
Jack Ramsey. “We check the IDs of the people on board—the
crew and any passengers. We interview them, search the cabins and
do sweeps looking for radiation.”
The Dundalk unit often employs a canine team, which includes a
trained handler and a dog trained to sniff out contraband. (See
For additional help in uncovering illegal shipments, CBP officers
are turning increasingly to advanced technology.
At the terminal in June, Bonner and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich
Jr. unveiled a mobile sea container X-ray system called the Eagle.
This huge, $6 million device is designed to inspect cargo containers
and trucks as they are unloaded. A similar system is being used
in Savannah, Ga., Shannon said
The Eagle is a self-propelled imaging system that is tall and wide
enough to pass over and around containers and trucks, X-raying them
as it moves.
The Eagle “allows us to see inside the containers,”
Shannon said. The system is able to scan a container in approximately
one minute. An image of the scan is available immediately for officers
to evaluate for potential threats.
Black-and-white images can be converted into a four-color palette
to help distinguish shapes inside containers or trucks. The images,
however, can be difficult for untrained eyes to decipher. Operators
receive two weeks of introductory training in using the scanner,
said Officer Tyesha Bordeaux. After that, she said, it takes a few
months to become proficient in operating the device.
The CBP unit at Dundalk also has two mobile vehicle and cargo inspection
systems. The mobile VACIS, as the device is known, is smaller and
lighter than the Eagle, making it easier to deploy. It is mounted
on the back of a pickup truck. Once it is deployed, it remains stationary,
unlike the Eagle, and scans trucks and containers as they pass.
The mobile VACIS uses gamma rays, rather than X-rays, to conduct
“We can scan them as fast as they can bring them to us,”
said Officer Brian Martus. “It takes five seconds to scan
In Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., CBP is installing 90 radiation
portal monitors to screen all incoming international containers
and vehicles for nuclear and radiological materials.
RPMs are detection devices that provide CBP officers with a passive,
non-intrusive means to conduct such screening. They do not emit
radiation, but can detect various types of radiation emanating from
nuclear devices, dirty bombs, natural sources and isotopes commonly
used in medicine and industry.
The RPMs in Los Angeles and Long Beach are scheduled to be operational
by December. They were installed at the seaport in Oakland, Calif.,
earlier this year. In 2006, CBP plans to place one at the Dundalk
terminal’s gate so that vehicles can be scanned as they exit,
said Officer Walter Simmons.
CBP officers also use handheld devices to detect radiation. One
such piece of equipment is the radioactive isotope identification
device, which employs the “grab, point and click” method
of operation. The RIID looks like a small shoebox with a handle.
It is controlled using one button and a thumb-operated, multifunctional
joystick switch. It allows the operator to survey an area for contamination,
measure the hazard level and analyze the material. It is being used
at more than 60 Customs and Border Patrol field offices.
In addition, since 2003, more than 10,400 CBP officers with frontline
inspection responsibilities have been issued personal radiation
detectors. These small, highly sensitive devices—worn on the
belt—resemble pagers or cell phones. They sound an alarm if
radiation is detected.
Immediately following the 2001 terrorist attacks, CBP recognized
that it would need the cooperation of importers. In November 2001,
it launched the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Under
C-TPAT, CBP offers importing companies expedited processing and
fewer inspections if they agree to devise policies and programs
to prevent their part of the supply chain from being infiltrated
One of the steps that CBP is urging participants to take is to
use “Smart Box” containers. A Smart Box is a container
with a sensor inside that CBP officers can read—either at
an overseas port or on arrival in the United States—and learn
whether or not it has been opened prematurely.
At last count, approximately 10,000 businesses had joined C-TPAT,
making it the largest voluntary partnership between government and
the private sector in U.S. history, Bonner said.
An April 2005 report by the GAO labeled these efforts as “promising,”
but raised concerns about CBP’s “ability to achieve
its ultimate goal of improved cargo security.”
Richard Stana, director of GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice
Team, told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that
CBP had been unable to target all U.S.-bound shipments from CSI
ports because of staffing imbalances. “As a result, 35 percent
of these shipments were not targeted [for] overseas inspection,”
In addition, Stana said, CBP has not established minimum technical
requirements for the detection capability of inspection equipment
used as part of CSI. Participating ports use various types of equipment
to inspect containers, and the capabilities of such equipment can
vary, he noted.
“Given these conditions, CBP has limited assurance that inspections
conducted under CSI are effective at detecting and identifying terrorist
weapons of mass destruction,” Stana said.
In response, CBP said it agreed with the GAO’s findings and
proposed to reconsider:
• Which inspection functions should to be performed at CSI
ports and which should be done within the United States.
• The optimum staff levels needed at CSI ports.
• The cost of locating CBP officers who decide which containers
to target for inspection at CSI ports instead of in the United States.
CBP also agreed to establish minimum technical requirements for
the capabilities of non-intrusive inspection equipment at CSI ports,
including imaging and radiation-detection devices, to help ensure
that all equipment used can detect WMD. In addition, CBP promised
to develop performance measures to track the progress in meeting
CBP receives some help from the administration’s 2006 budget
request, which provides additional funds for cargo security. In
the request, CBP receives a total of $6.7 billion, a 4.8 percent
increase, including $125 million for additional radiation portal
monitors. CSI gets $138.8 million, a $5.4 million boost, and C-TPAT
receives $54.3 million, including $8.2 million to enhance supply-chain
security validations. The automated targeting system gets $28.3
million, with $5.4 million to strengthen targeting and risk-analysis