By Philip Shenon
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
June 12, 2003
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will place teams of U.S. inspectors at major seaports in Muslim nations and other strategically located foreign ports to prevent terrorists from smuggling chemical, biological or nuclear weapons into the United States, senior administration officials said.
The inspectors, they said, will be provided with radiation monitors, chemical detectors and other equipment to inspect "high-risk" metal cargo containers before they are placed on ships bound for the United States.
The move is the second phase in a government program begun shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to station U.S. customs inspectors overseas to work side by side with their foreign counterparts in searching for unconventional weapons.
The first phase focused on 20 large container ports in Europe and Asia, none of them in countries with predominantly Muslim populations.
Officials said the Department of Homeland Security planned to place teams of inspectors that would remain indefinitely in Dubai, the Persian Gulf emirate that is a crucial transshipment point for containerized cargo in the Arab world, Malaysia, Turkey and other Muslim nations. Al-Qaeda is believed to have a sizable presence in both Dubai and Malaysia.
Intelligence agencies report that al-Qaeda has repeatedly used cargo ships to move conventional weapons and explosives, including the explosives used in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Human cargo is also a concern. In October 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities in an Italian seaport discovered an Egyptian man suspected of al-Qaeda membership hiding in a shipping container bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Airport maps and security passes were also found in the container, which he had outfitted with a bed and bathroom. The man disappeared while on bail.
Robert C. Bonner, the commissioner of customs and border protection in the Department of Homeland Security, said the program's expansion reflected a continuing concern that al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups might try to place weapons of mass destruction in some of the more than 6 million cargo containers that arrive in the United States from overseas each year.
"I'm not prophesying anything," Bonner said in an interview. "But I do have concern that we need to have this security system in place as fast as we possibly can." He said "the system of containerized shipping was vulnerable to terrorist exploitation."
"And you don't have to take my word for it," Bonner added. "Every national security expert I've heard has come to the same conclusion."
The issue of cargo security has become increasingly contentious on Capitol Hill. Many prominent lawmakers from coastal states have accused the administration of failing to provide the money to safeguard ports from terrorist attacks and to prevent terrorists from using cargo ships to transport weapons.
Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, who will announce many of the details of the expanded inspection program in a visit today to Port Elizabeth, N.J., said that "identifying and dealing with high-risk containers at the earliest possible point protects the entire international supply chain and all of the world's major seaports."
He said the posting of customs inspectors abroad, a 17-month-old program known as the Container Security Initiative, had "emerged as a formidable tool for protecting us from the threat of terrorism."
In the first phrase of the program, the Customs Service, which has since been merged into the Homeland Security Department, opened negotiations with foreign governments representing the world's 20 largest cargo ports, as measured by shipments to the United States, to permit U.S. inspectors to be stationed permanently in those ports.
Administration officials said teams of U.S. inspectors would be at work at almost all of those large ports – a list that includes Antwerp, Belgium; Genoa, Italy; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Netherlands; Shanghai, China; Singapore; Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan – by the end of the year.
Ridge signed an agreement yesterday with Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is visiting Washington, to allow U.S. inspectors to work the giant Thai port of Laem Chabang, which is No. 20 on the list.
But while those 20 foreign ports represent almost two-thirds of the containerized cargo bound for the United States, officials said there was mounting worry that al-Qaeda might try to make use of containers passing through other, smaller ports, especially in Muslim nations where the terrorist group has a strong following.
In the new phase of the program, Bonner said, the Bush administration would place teams in an additional 20 to 25 foreign seaports, with the ports to be chosen on the basis of both cargo volume and their strategic location in nations or regions where terrorism is believed to be a special threat.
"We will be expanding to important parts of the Islamic world," he said. "We will be looking more strategically."
Administration officials said the Malaysian government had already agreed to join the program, and that negotiations would begin soon with both Dubai and Turkey, which are also expected to sign on quickly.
The Department of Homeland Security has already placed 130 inspectors overseas as part of the first phase of the program, with an additional 170 in training to join them. Department officials said more than $100 million had already been committed to setting up the program.
Bonner said foreign governments were eager to allow the U.S. inspectors into their ports, if only because it meant that cargo shipped from their ports would face no special delays for inspection when it arrived in the United States.
Governments that refuse to join the program would risk having their cargo shipments held up on arrival in the United States.
Foreign governments that agree to join the program are required to provide the U.S. inspectors with high-level detection equipment, including radiation monitors that would be used to detect nuclear devices or the components of radioactive weapons.
Bonner said that although the United States had no intention of buying detection equipment for use in foreign seaports, the administration had asked the World Bank to consider how to help foreign governments raise the money for such tools.
Under the program, the U.S. teams are expected to carry out inspections of a small sample of cargo containers that raise suspicion – because their shippers are unknown, because their contents are in question or for other reasons. Each team is expected to have about five members.
At today's news conference, Ridge is also expected to announce the distribution of $170 million in federal grants to strengthen port security around the United States, most of it directed to state and local governments, and $30 million for research and development on cargo security.
No mention of Mexico, or Canada yet?
U.S. Customs still doesn't have enough personnel to conduct "routine" inspections, yet we are going to send Customs inspectors to foreign countries to "sample" a percentage of over 6 million sea containers? Will they be armed and able to protect themselves to enforce the inspections or will they be "unarmed" and under diplomatic status?
We don't even have enough inspectors to examine a good cross section of the cargo trucks and containers that enter the U.S. from Mexico or Canada now? Customs was grounded the day the Clinton administration took over and former Customs Commissioner George J. Weise & Raymond W. Kelly decided to inspect only "less than 2% of ALL cargo containers coming into the United States". (1997 direct quote) That left the United States WIDE open for attack and infiltration by terrorists, smugglers and illegals. We need to have those inspection percentages raised to 25% and personnel increased by 5,000 immediately and gradually increased to 10,000 more Customs personnel if we are to do the job properly. Especially in the areas of large shipping receiving areas like Long Beach, Miami, New Orleans, New York, etc...(That's about 500 inspections a day each Border Inspection Station nationwide. That's not much to ask for when you are asking for national security) ALL shipping containers should be checked for HUMAN cargo as well as radiation anyway.
Contraband and illegals continue to enter our country every night and day and we still do NOT have enough Customs and Border Patrol personnel to do the job. I have personally seen illegals come out of a Customs commercial facility in Otay Mesa as late as last Sunday evening at 10:00 P.M. on June 8, 2003 while Border Patrol tries to do their jobs after Customs leaves for the evening. At least 2 Border Patrol agents in marked vehicles could NOT even catch a single adult male dressed in black that just jumped the Customs compound fence less than 15 seconds after being told where the illegal went. They have special alarms installed and yet "illegals" continue to cross our border everyday and night right under Customs jurisdiction as it has for over 16 years. Granted, it is a lot harder now than it was 10 years ago, but poor Customs management and poor security systems still need improving. They NEED special equipment, more personnel, unmarked cars and vehicles to do their jobs. The nightmare is still continuing........When are Mr. Tom Ridge and Robert C. Bonner going to wake up?!!!