U.S.-Bound Cargo Not Screened for WMDs at Half of ‘High Risk’ Ports

By Alissa Tabirian | October 8, 2013 | 4:01 PM EDT

Shipping containers in Tianjin, China. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Half of the foreign seaports considered “high risk” for smuggling “weapons of mass destruction or other terrorist contraband” into the U.S. are not being monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released late last month.

As a result, “the maritime supply chain remains vulnerable to attacks.”

Although DHS officials believe that the likelihood that terrorists will manage to sneak nuclear devices or other weapons of mass destruction inside one of the 31,000 cargo containers that arrive in the U.S. each day “is relatively low,” they also recognize that “the consequences of such an event could be catastrophic,” auditors noted. (See GAO ports.pdf)

Under the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Container Security Initiative (CSI) program, “targeters” are stationed at select foreign ports and “use intelligence and risk assessment information” to screen cargo containers before they reach U.S. shores.

But GAO found that CSI was not even established “in 15 of the top 50 riskiest ports” – which were not specified in the report - because doing so “requires the cooperation of sovereign foreign governments,” and is often impeded by “political and legal constraints” in the host countries.

Out of the 61 ports for which CSI is currently in place, 57 met the audit criteria for a high volume of shipments. Of these, “27 were within the top 50 riskiest ports,” the report stated. But CSI “did not have a presence at about half of the ports CBP considered high risk.”

However, targeters were posted at a fifth of existing CSI ports that “were at lower risk locations,” GAO found.

Countries with an active CSI program include Canada, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Greece, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan, and Israel.  (See CBP Cargo Flows.pdf)

“The majority of U.S. imports arrive by ocean vessel, and much of that is transported in cargo containers” which, although “critical to the U.S. economy . . . can also be exploited by terrorists,” the report noted. WMD have not been found in cargo containers so far, but “criminals have exploited containers for other illegal purposes, such as smuggling weapons, people, and illicit substances.”

About 11.5 million cargo containers arrived from more than 650 foreign ports during fiscal year 2012. “Business activities related to waterborne commerce contributed approximately $3.15 trillion overall to the U.S. economy, and those same businesses paid nearly $212.5 billion in federal, state and local taxes,” the American Association of Port Authorities’ website states.

International shippers are required to submit manifests for all cargo destined for the U.S. 24 hours in advance. This data is then transmitted to the U.S. National Targeting Center.

A map featured in the GAO report noted areas including China and Singapore where “U.S.-based staff target lower-risk shipments and in-country staff target higher risk shipments.” Meanwhile, U.S.-based targeting, done remotely rather than in-country, has been implemented in Israel and Pakistan.

GAO recommended periodic assessments of “supply chain security risks from all foreign ports,” which DHS agreed to do.

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