WASHINGTON – While ports like Baltimore have stepped up inspection of foreign cargo in the wake of Sept. 11, new restrictions on cargo containers are needed to keep ports truly safe from terrorist attack, the U.S. Customs chief said Thursday.
U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said that the 5.7 million containers that arrive every year from foreign ports could provide an easy route for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to reach the heart of many major cities.
“The stakes are high and the system is vulnerable,” Bonner said. “We must devise and implement a system to prevent the first incidence from occurring.”
Bonner acknowledged that it would be impossible to inspect each container. But, in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he proposed measures that could help identify high-risk containers and suggested extending the zone of security farther from American territory.
In addition to the millions of cargo containers that arrive in U.S. ports from across the globe, often without any inspection, 11 million more containers enter the country by land each year.
The Port of Baltimore handled 489,016 container units in 2000, the last year for which numbers were available. Those containers accounted for 70 percent of the Maryland Port Administration’s total cargo that year.
Since Sept. 11, the port has not only examined containers more closely, but also increased security patrols, limited the public’s access to facilities and upgraded fencing and lighting throughout the facility.
“9/11 grabbed us and said you now have a very, very crucial thing you need to put at the top of your agenda,” said Judy Scioli, a port administration spokeswoman.
Scioli said the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service have “stepped up to the plate in closely scrutinizing the cargo and have raised awareness of the security threats.”
Customs officials at the port use an “automated targeting system” that helps inspectors decide which of the hundreds of thousands of containers to examine. Officials consider the country of origin of the vessel and whether or not the ship originated or stopped in a “high-risk” country, then can use dogs and X-ray equipment to examine any suspicious cargo, said Jim Michi, a U.S. Customs spokesman.
“Ocean-going containers as a vessel for terrorists or terrorists’ weapons is by no means far-fetched,” Booner said. In October, a suspected al-Qaida trained terrorist was found in Italy in a Canada-bound container with a bed, heater, toilet, cellular phone and airport maps.
“Eighteen million cargo containers enter the United States every year,” said Arnaud de Borchgrave, director of the Global Organized Crime Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “As we saw on 9/11, virtually every major transportation system we depend on for international trade can be transformed into a weapon of mass destruction.”
Before Sept. 11, only about 2 percent of the containers entering the country were inspected each year, transportation officials said last year. After Sept. 11 the number of container inspections has increased significantly Bonner said.
Bonner proposed establishing criteria to identify high-risk containers, which could be screened overseas, before they are shipped to the U.S. He also said the use of “smart box” shipping container equipped, with an electronic seal on the outside and light-sensor technology inside, could determine whether the container had been opened or tampered with during transit.
“All industrialized nations depend rely heavily on containerized shipping,” the commissioner said. “A terrorist attack would be devastating.”
Scioli said the Port of Baltimore generates $1.4 billion for Maryland annually and employs 126,700 Marylanders in maritime-related jobs and the movement of cargo.