Seaports called 'critically vulnerable' to terrorism

The nation's seaports remain "critically vulnerable" to terrorists seeking to smuggle weapons of mass destruction-or themselves-into the United States, several port security experts told a Senate panel on Thursday.

"There are vulnerabilities in our sea cargo-container system that have the potential for exploitation by terrorists," Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, said during a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "In fact, most experts believe a terrorist attack using a container is likely."

Capt. Jeffrey Monroe, director of ports and transportation for the city of Portland, Maine, said that although federal, state and local officials have made "great strides" in securing ports since Sept. 11, 2001, "we still must find solutions to the most serious problems on the waterfront." Those problems include a lack of coordination and procedural standards among agencies that regulate maritime commerce, and port managers' ongoing lack of access to intelligence data, according to Monroe.

He also called for a rapid expansion of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program and the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which enables U.S. Customs agents stationed in foreign ports to use surveillance equipment to screen U.S.-bound cargo containers identified as "high risk." "We all understand that by the time something is found at [a U.S.] pier, it may already be too late," Monroe said.

Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is now director of the Council on Foreign Relations' task force on homeland security, said the CSI and C-TPAT initiatives are steps in the right direction, "but they have limits."

He noted, for example, that CSI's system for targeting at-risk containers is "built primarily around [cargo] manifest information, which is historically the most unreliable data in the whole commercial trade industry."

Flynn added that the C-TPAT pilot program has no system to monitor compliance among the 2,000 participating companies who can take a "fast lane" into the United States after taking steps to ensure security throughout the cargo supply chain. "Everybody who's signed up [for C-TPAT] knows that U.S. Customs does not have the manpower to come check the books," Flynn said. "You've got to give that thing some teeth if it's going to be credible."

Another problem is a lack of international standards on container security, according to Flynn. "This is a high-stakes issue for which we are dedicating very few resources," he said.

Hutchinson cited a need for greater international port security standards. "There are ports out there that do not have the sophistication of the detection equipment, they do not have the investment that's made, they do not have the background checks for the port workers," Hutchinson said. "These are the ports that are at much higher risk. What we have to do is make sure that ... if they want to bring goods into the United States, then they're going to have to upgrade their systems."

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