Pandora's Cargo Boxes

Is the U.S. doing enough to protect its ports?

As the U.S. races to secure itself against future terrorist attacks, airport security has come under intense scrutiny. Unfortunately, far less attention has been paid to the 18.5 million containers that arrive in the U.S. every year by truck, railcar, and sea. Packed with more than $1.1 trillion worth of imported goods, these containers constitute a vital economic lifeline--and the most vulnerable link in our transportation infrastructure.

In recent years, only about 5% of vehicles crossing in from Canada or Mexico have been physically inspected. And at the nation's 361 coastal and inland ports, through which 95% of U.S. international trade flows, just one or two of every 100 inbound containers are ever cracked open. For terrorists seeking to transport lethal chemicals, bio weapons, or even a homemade nuke, the easiest way into New York, Miami, Los Angeles, or Chicago is in one of these containers. The ports, meanwhile, are more than just gateways to all the major cities. Each one, in its own right, could be a tempting target for an attack.

In short, America's seaports present a gaping national security hole. While technology exists to improve the inspection and tracking of containers, along with better methods for managing the ports, federal funding and oversight for such efforts has been nil. But that may change in the wake of September 11 as Congress prepares its first major push to secure the nation's borders.

The legislators have their work cut out for them. The flow of containers, torrential as it already is, has lately been growing at 5%-to-7% per year. And despite a near-term slowdown, it is expected to double by 2020. Measuring roughly 8 feet by 40 feet, each steel box can hold the contents of a good-size house and weigh over 40 tons. Although hand-inspecting the contents of a container can take hours, in many cases Customs has no choice. Nationwide, the service uses fewer than 100 X-ray machines or similar devices that can see deep into these cavernous crates. Most such scanners are deployed on the Mexican border, searching for drugs and illegal immigrants. Only a few dozen are specifically dedicated to sea containers.

Even with the right technology, security will improve only with more streamlined port management. Indeed, the whole inspection culture must be overhauled to catch terrorist threats that were never previously on the radar, says Stephen Flynn, a Coast Guard commander who studies shipping security as a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. For the federal inspectors, Job One is to alter their decades-old focus. To date, "they've been looking for bales of marijuana and bricks of cocaine, not biological or chemical weapons," says Kenneth G. Hawkes, a Miami-based maritime lawyer and consultant.

Port authorities will also have to untangle the overlapping activities of a half-dozen federal agencies, including Customs, the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Attorney General, and Treasury. Although some ports manage to balance the work of these agencies, none is truly secure, says Flynn. "There's a reason the Mob has always been active on the waterfront--it's an easy target," he snipes.

Better technology is bound to have an impact. Customs currently depends primarily on gamma-ray systems that are adequate for seeing through small vehicles or crates. But critics say these devices are most effective when applied to loosely packed containers. More powerful X-ray based machines, already used in Israel, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong, can pierce several inches of steel and peer through more densely packed boxes. These machines let inspectors scrutinize "everything from false compartments down to the buttons on a remote control," says John F. Moore, president of Bio-Imaging Research Inc. in Lincolnshire, Ill. And they can be programmed to spot telltale density signatures of explosive and nuclear materials.

Port authorities won't discuss their security strategies in detail. Since the attack, however, Customs has been on its highest level of alert. Long shifts are now the rule for inspectors, with the agency spending $5.5 million per week for overtime. "We've effectively multiplied our force," says Customs spokesman James F. Michie.

Industry experts now expect more high-end X-ray devices to be installed. However, even the fastest units, which cost upwards of $10 million to fully deploy, can process only one container per minute. With thousands of containers passing every hour through 300 or more points of entry, "there's no way we can afford to install enough [scanners] to check them all," says Flynn. "It would mean gridlock at the borders and the end of trade."

It may not be necessary to inspect every box, though. Customs already sifts through shipping documents and intelligence tips to spot potential threats before container ships dock, says Michie. And with special software, port authorities may be able to further hone their skills in identifying suspicious boxes. In the world of crossborder trade, these programs are known as global logistics solutions and are sold by a host of software startups such as Vastera, NextLinx, ClearCross, Qiva, and Open Harbor. The systems track the deluge of details associated with each freight load, including the shipper, the carrier, the goods, bills of lading, and the like. "It helps to determine quickly if data is missing or suspicious," says Adrian Gonzales, an analyst with Dedham (Mass.)-based ARC Advisory Group Inc.

Keeping track of the people transporting the goods is also part of the challenge. Here, biometric systems that match physical features such as retinal patterns and facial structure may be of service. Biometrics could be used, for example, to control access to secure areas and to avoid use of false I.D.s by truck drivers, stevedores, and even bogus Customs officials. Interstate truckers are already federally licensed. Extending this practice to the waterfront and adding background checks and I.D. cards that involve biometric verification isn't much of stretch. And it would help secure port areas now protected by guards who are likely to be "half asleep and poorly paid," says Hawkes.

THIN WALLS. Security experts also fret about the physical integrity of the containers. The boxes look sturdy, but their steel walls can be deceptively thin. And they're often secured by little more than a padlock and a plastic tag that acts as a seal. Flynn points out that thieves have been known to clip and replace the tag, cut a hole in the roof--or even lift the rear doors from their hinges, remove the contents, and replace the doors without disturbing the seal. Estimates of the annual cost of such theft run as high as $12 billion.

Fanatics, obviously, could employ the same tricks to far more sinister ends. But security experts note that shippers are already fighting back, to a limited degree, with wireless anti-tampering devices. These include temperature and light sensors that can alert container owners of sudden environmental changes and global-positioning systems that warn authorities if a container is improperly removed from a secure area.

Lawmakers are racing to set up guidelines and funding for such technologies, along with improved monitoring and tracking. One proposal from Senators Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) sets guidelines for loan guarantees, coordination among agencies, and national security standards. Last year, port managers resisted such efforts, but today, "it's a different story," says Kurt J. Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities. The bill for a security upgrade may easily reach into the billions of dollars. But few will object if the funds can actually secure America's ports, roads, and rails.

By Adam Aston, with John Cady, in New York

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