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Report: U.S. could improve defense against dangerous cargo

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Published:   |   Updated: October 6, 2013 at 10:13 PM

TAMPA — The United States could improve assessing the risk of foreign cargo that might contain weapons of mass destruction, including shipments from at least eight ports whose cargo regularly arrives at the Port of Tampa, a Government Accountability Office report stated.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not assessed the risk posed by foreign ports since 2005, the GAO found.

Customs and Border Protection does not have a presence at about half the foreign ports the agency considers high risk, the report said. Because U.S. security programs depend on cooperation from host countries, there are challenges to implement programs at new locations.

“Department of Homeland Security officials believe that the likelihood of terrorists smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the United States in cargo containers is relatively low,” the GAO said in a letter to congressional leaders before releasing its latest report on container cargo security on Sept. 27.

“However the consequences of such an event could be catastrophic,” the GAO added.

The GAO added in its report that while there have been no known incidents of cargo containers being used to transport weapons of mass destruction, the maritime supply chain remains vulnerable to attacks.

Last year, a July 2012 deadline that 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo containers be scanned at foreign ports with both radiation detection and imaging equipment before being placed on U.S.-bound vessels was extended to July 2014 after funding issues precluded pilot projects from being completed.

In February 2012, Customs and Border Protection had achieved 100 percent scanning of U.S.-bound cargo containers at only one foreign port where the program was attempted in Port Quasim, Pakistan, the report pointed out.

The Department of Homeland Security in January said it is working to identify potential alternatives to 100 percent scanning.

“One hundred percent screening means different things to different people,” said Mark Dubina, vice president of security at the Port of Tampa.

“There are a number of ways to screen cargo, other than physically opening every container,” he said.

“If we as a nation are going to be successful in stopping all types of potentially dangerous contraband from entering the United States through a seaport the proper authorities are going to have to continue to train with our first responders.

“... And continue to utilize a multilayered system of screening cargo that leverages technology and current intelligence information, along with inspection protocols that are not predictable to our enemies.”

Tampa’s port got a late start in building its container cargo business and has handled about 30,000, 20-foot containers the first nine months of fiscal 2013, though increasing container cargo is a top port priority.

But the nation’s inspection task clearly is daunting, with some ports such as Savannah handling about 3 million containers annually.

The Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard, both within the Department of Homeland Security, are the two key agencies responsible for maritime security.

The Department of Homeland Security focuses on security efforts beyond U.S. borders to target and examine high-risk cargo and vessels before they enter U.S. seaports, the GAO said.

Customs and Border Protection is responsible for reducing vulnerabilities associated with U.S.-bound cargo container shipments and the Coast Guard, among other things, assesses the effectiveness of security measures in foreign ports and vessels that trade with the United States.

The path a product can take from a foreign country to the United States includes numerous steps, all of which are potentially vulnerable for an enemy to add a WMD or other terrorist instrument.

For example, an export can move from a factory via truck to a rail container yard, then be carried by freight train to a consolidation facility before being loaded onto a vessel bound for the United States. The vessel can spend days en route across oceans before being unloaded at a U.S. port container yard, and shipped via truck or rail to a warehouse for ultimate delivery to the importer.

Neither the Port of Tampa nor other U.S. ports was mentioned in the GAO report, but the report listed 61 foreign ports where inspection or other security programs were conducted as of July.

Inspection teams at 31 of the 61 foreign seaports identified as high-risk sites for cargo shipments, including some serving the Port of Tampa, work with host government customs officials to examine containers and obtain examination reports, the GAO report said.

The strategy at another nine foreign ports is to use in-country Customs and Border Protection officials to review higher risk shipments, while U.S.-based targeters review the shipping information on lower risk shipments.

Twelve ports use a regional hub approach, in which Customs and Border Protection staff are stationed at one port but are responsible for multiple ports within the same country to increase efficiency. Host government customs officials at remote ports complete container examinations and provide the results to U.S. employees at the regional hub.

Nine locations rely on host government Customs officials to complete container examinations and electronically provide the results of any container image scans to U.S.-based Customs and Border Patrol officials.

“The Department of Homeland Security ... appreciates GAO’s recognition that it may not be possible to include all of the higher risk ports in the Container Security initiative because CSI requires the cooperation of foreign governments,” Jim Crumpacker, director of the departmental GAO-Office of the Inspector General liaison Office with the Department of Homeland Security said in a response to the GAO report.

“DHS, however, is committed to deploying CBP officers as part of a multidisciplinary ... team to work with host nation counterparts to target high-risk cargo containers and protect containerized shipping from exploitation by terrorists.”

The Department of Homeland Security also said it would formulate a process to conduct periodic assessments of security risks from all ports that ship cargo to the United States, with the first assessment completed by August 2014.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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