Three-year study reveals worldwide port security lapses
Lapses by private port operators, shipping lines or truck drivers could allow terrorists to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States, according to a government review of security at American seaports.
The $75 million, three-year study by the Department of Homeland Security included inspections at a New Jersey cargo terminal involved in the dispute over a Dubai company’s now-abandoned bid to take over significant operations at six major U.S. ports.
The previously undisclosed results from the study, called “Operation Safe Commerce,” found that cargo containers can be opened secretly during shipment to add or remove items without alerting U.S. authorities, according to government documents marked “sensitive security information” and reported on by The Associated Press.
The study found serious lapses by private companies at foreign and American ports, aboard ships, and on trucks and trains “that would enable unmanifested materials or weapons of mass destruction to be introduced into the supply chain.”
The study, expected to be completed this fall, used satellites and experimental monitors to trace roughly 20,000 cargo containers out of the millions arriving each year from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Most containers are sealed with mechanical bolts that can be cut and replaced or have doors that can be removed by dismantling hinges.
Among the study’s findings:
* Safety problems were not limited to overseas ports. A warehouse in Maine was graded less secure than any in Pakistan, Turkey or Brazil. “There is a perception that U.S. facilities benefit from superior security protection measures,” the study said. “This mindset may contribute to a misplaced sense of confidence in American business practices.”
* Truck drivers in Brazil were permitted to take cargo containers home overnight and park along public streets. Trains in the U.S. stopped in rail yards that did not have fences and were in high-crime areas. A shipping industry adage reflects unease over such practices: “A container at rest is a container at risk.”
* Containers could be opened aboard some ships during weekslong voyages to America. “Due to the time involved in transit (and) the fact that most vessel crew members are foreigners with limited credentialing and vetting, the containers are vulnerable to intrusion during the ocean voyage,” the study said.
In theory, some nuclear materials inside cargo containers can be detected with special monitors. But such devices have frustrated port officials in New Jersey because bananas, kitty litter and fire detectors — which all emit natural radiation — set off the same alarms more than 100 times every day.
Finding biological and chemical weapons inside cargo containers is less likely. The study said tests were “labor intensive, time-consuming and costly to use” and produced too many false alarms. “No silver bullet has emerged to render terrorists incapable of introducing WMD into containers,” it said.
Part of the study tested new tamper-evident locks on containers and tracking devices.
The lengthy study has been beset by problems. Japan refused to allow officials to attach tracking devices to containers destined for the United States. Other tracking devices sometimes failed. Many shipping companies refused to disclose information for competitive reasons.