It's a doomsday scenario long speculated by such fiction writers as Tom Clancy: a terrorist smuggles a nuclear weapon through a U.S. port in a shipping container. More than four years after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security still is working to implement a comprehensive plan to thwart such an attack, officials say.
"Terrorists are not going to prevent us from going about our business," vowed Robert Bonner, Customs and Border Protection commissioner, at a trade symposium before his retirement last year. However, in a meeting with reporters afterwards, Bonner acknowledged technological hurdles - as well as complexities negotiating with overseas trading partners - make implementing the plan a difficult proposition.
The challenge facing the agency, importers and the shipping industry is to prevent weapons of mass destruction, would-be illegal immigrants and contraband from entering U.S. ports - including overland traffic from Canada and Mexico - without disrupting the flow of goods, officials said. DHS and the Defense Department issued an eight-part National Strategy for Maritime Security.
Every year, 9 million shipping containers, holding everything from cars to cardigans, arrive from more than 150 different countries and pass through U.S. ports. Preventing the entry of contraband, including material that could be used for weapons of mass destruction, falls on the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The container security initiative now underway is DHS' answer to the nuke-in-a-suitcase scenario.
The container security initiative aims to identify threats before they arrive in ports.
While the initiative also may uncover narcotics, stowaways, currency and a variety of different weapons, DHS said it considers the nuclear threat "preeminent." A nuclear weapon detonated at a U.S. port would have devastating consequences, a DHS fact sheet said. The initiative's goal is to beef up intelligence and inspections overseas to intercept such weapons before they make it to U.S. shores.
The container security initiative has a five-prong approach. They include: using intelligence and automated information to identify and target suspect shipments, pre-screening those containers before they arrive in U.S. ports, using detection technology to quickly identify potential threats, and using tamper resistant seals.
Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, said that, two years after the initiative was announced, Customs and Border Protection has yet to check any of the five items off the list.
CBP officials said that they are on the verge of overcoming technological hurdles that will allow shippers to secure containers and allow them to pass speedily through customs inspections. Many of the goals require bilateral or multi-lateral negotiations with foreign trading partners or suppliers of goods, said Bonner. The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism is an initiative calling for importers to comply with baseline standards to ensure security in the supply chain, particularly in terms of containers. The World Customs Organization's (WCO) framework of standards to secure and facilitate global trade asks governments to employ safeguards at their ports.
However, the challenge of improving security in the supply chain - from overseas factory to a U.S. port - begins abroad where the goods originate, and that involves negotiating with foreign governments and manufacturers.
Fifty foreign ports were expected to be in various stages of the WCO framework's implementation by the end of 2005, Bonner said. Most of these are high-volume ports in developed countries that ship the majority of goods imported into the United States. Twenty major ports in countries such as Japan, China and the Netherlands account for two-thirds of the goods arriving in the United States. Complications arise in the smaller ports located in developing nations with limited financial and human resources, Bonner said.
Operating some of the non-intrusive inspection equipment for detecting potential nuclear weapons requires skills on par with a hospital radiologist, Bonner noted. The devices can be costly. Bonner expects institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other lenders to step up and assist with purchasing equipment. CPB has deployed officers to less developed ports to mentor their counterparts, he added.
Cooperation from within some of the underdeveloped countries is a factor, Bonner said. Sometimes CPB officials have negotiated with heads of state to underscore the importance of signing the framework. If nations don't adopt the frameworks for boosting container security, "they will be on the outside looking in," Bonner warned.
Sandra Fallgatter, customs and trade manager for retailer J.C. Penney, said it is good business practice for importers to comply with the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism initiative. J.C. Penney personnel who inspect foreign factories to ensure compliance with fair labor practices and quality control are now adding security to their required duties.
J.C. Penney is asking, "Do they have fences? Do they patrol fences? Do they assure outsiders aren't allowed access to factories?" Fallgatter said. The retailer also is checking to see how containers are loaded. It is training suppliers how to spot false compartments.
Once containers stopped outside U.S. ports are singled out for inspection, the agency has improved its ability to detect radiological threats, Bonner said. CPB has carried out more than 10,000 tests during the past two years. He boasted that the knowledge and skills for detecting radiation now surpasses any other agency in the government, including the Department of Energy.
When a truck loaded with ceramic tiles arrives from Mexico and emits a positive reading, border agents can quickly determine that it is thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element found in clays.
The technology for creating tamper-proof seals to show when a container has been breached, however, is lagging, Bonner said. The problem is "false positives." The devices themselves are relatively inexpensive. Complications arise when containers are jostled in transit, particularly when cranes load them on and off ships. Tests on such seals have showed percentages of false positive readings in the single digits.
"That's much too high," Bonner said. "It has to be under 1 percent false positives before this will work."
With millions of containers entering U.S. ports every year, and tens of thousands every day, even a 2 percent false alarm rate would overwhelm inspectors and slow trade, Bonner said. The technology will also have to be affordable to the shippers who will be absorbing the costs, he added.
Randy Koch, general manager of cargo security at GE, one of the vendors vying to solve the technological issues, said the costs would have to be in the $10-$12 per container, per shipment range for carriers to comfortably absorb the added expense.
"Shippers are not going to spend $2,000 to outfit a container that only costs $2,000," Koch said. Both Koch and Bonner believe the technological issues involving false positives will be overcome in 2006.
As for gathering intelligence, CBP's goal is to track each container's movement in the supply chain. This is not an easy task when an individual container may stop at several ports. Risk management practices - knowing what containers have the highest need to be inspected - is crucial. Tagging the wrong containers, or culling out too many, could both slow the flow of goods, or allow contraband to enter unimpeded, Bonner said.
A new technology called "automated commercial environment" is data collection system designed to quickly ascertain the risk of each container and expedite the inspection process. ACE is currently being deployed in phases and is expected to be in operation in every U.S. port by 2010.
CPB's goal, announced in early 2005, is to inaugurate a "green lane" in ports for ships that have both supplied the necessary data 24 hours ahead of arrival through the ACE system and have secure containers. Some ships may still be stopped for random inspections, but companies employing CPB's best practices would see expedited processing. Details of how the green lane will work are still under discussion. The false positive container seal problem is the only factor preventing the green lane from being implemented, Bonner said.
CPB will certify suppliers and shippers in tiers. Tier 3 importers and exporters will be those who have gone beyond the CPB security requirements and will see their containers move through customs more quickly. In the retail business, timeliness and predictability are vital, Fallgatter said. Products are expected at stores at certain times, and a red flag on a shipment may result in empty shelves.
Part of the agency's risk management plan will be to ensure the flow of goods even if the system fails and a terrorist strikes a U.S. port. The goal will be to shut as few ports down as possible. Terrorists realize that simply the threat of an attack can cause harm. Economists estimated a narrowly avoided West Coast port strike in 2003 would have cost the U.S. economy $1 billion to $2 billion per day.
"A threat stifling trade can be an act of terror in itself," said Jayson Ahern, CPB assistant commissioner.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. ports briefly shut down, costing the economy billions of dollars. CPB does not want to repeat that scenario. If a threat or attack does occur, current plans call for localizing the problem as much as possible to mitigate economic damage, Ahern said.
Alane Kochems, a homeland security and defense policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, and a leading critic of DHS' port security plans, said in a paper that the doomsday scenario, in which a terrorist smuggles a nuclear weapon into the United States in a shipping container, is highly unlikely.
"This scenario is being used to argue for wrongheaded solutions that would yield minimal benefits while costing billions of dollars and hamstring global commerce," Kochems said. If a terrorist wanted to bring such a weapon into the United States, a small watercraft would be much easier. A landing in Canada or Mexico and transportation across the porous U.S. land borders would be more likely.
"The United States should not attempt to make each cargo container and port into a miniature Fort Knox," Kochems said.
Michael Jackson, DHS deputy secretary, countered that his agency is acting to secure the nation's land borders as well.
"We can walk and chew gum at the same time at DHS, and that's why we have a comprehensive border, immigration strategy to secure the border," Jackson told reporters at the symposium. "We also have to look at aviation security and interior security of transport networks, so there's a big plate of work to do at DHS."
The World Shipping Council's Koch said CPB's efforts to boost container security are being watched closely. "If [the program] doesn't have the respect of the rest of the government, like the Defense Department and the Coast Guard, then it isn't going to do any good."