Shipping Containers & Hidden Dangers

American seaports are not only the maritime doorway to the nation but also a crucial link in the U.S. two-way trade with other nations. Today, billions of dollars’ worth of unchecked goods move in and out of U.S. international seaports every month, making ports vulnerable to disruption from both terrorist attacks and natural disasters. In the United States, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Agriculture, port authorities’ own police forces, and many other local, state, and federal government agencies diligently work together to protect the nation’s seaports from myriad threats. Nuclear proliferation is a viable threat and the possibility of a terrorist attack on a U.S. seaport is certainly plausible – both with the potential to cause immediate devastation to the local community and to cripple the already delicate global economy.

Busy Ports

The United States currently is served by more than 360 commercial ports – which, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, provide nearly 3,200 handling facilities for both cargo and passengers. Additionally, U.S. seaports process more than 2 billion tons of import/export freight per annum. In 2009 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, nearly 10 million ocean-borne cargo containers entered the United States through its seaports.

Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, are unequivocally the busiest North American container ports, trailed by the Port of New York and New Jersey. In 2011, the Port of Long Beach handled more than 6 million containers and the Port of New York and New Jersey handled 5.5 million – both container totals are measured in TEUs (20-foot equivalent units).

Cargo containers are an important component of the global supply chain – the flow of goods from manufacturers to retailers. Unfortunately, the mass influx of containers provides innumerable opportunities for would-be terrorists to smuggle and detonate a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) on U.S. soil. Although terrorism remains a critical security focus at seaports, it is actually rated by U.S. Customs as a lower risk than other threats – e.g., drug smuggling, human trafficking, weapons trafficking, and trade and import safety violations – that have the potential to compromise the nation’s supply chain.

Consequences of an Attack

Apart from the potential human costs that may result from a lack of port security, the economic costs of a maritime attack can be overwhelming. During a time when workforces face layoffs, impending unemployment extensions, and foreclosures, any political or economic factor that impedes the flow of trade would not only affect the seaports themselves but also interrupt the supply of goods. The widespread effect would be felt throughout the country, and in many other nations as well.

Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s Assistant Commandant for Maritime Security, told the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security last year that, “Considering that high concentrations of our population live in and around port areas, and 95 percent of our international trade is done via the sea, the consequences of any attack or disruption on our maritime transportation system are potentially severe.”

Section 1701 of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 requires that all maritime cargo containers bound for the United States must, as of 12 July 2012, be scanned by non-intrusive imaging equipment and radiation detection technology before being loaded on ships. Reinforcing efforts to counter the looming terrorist threat at U.S. ports is the fact that then-candidate Barack Obama promised during his 2008 presidential campaign to “Develop technology that can detect radiation and work with the maritime transportation industry to deploy this technology to maximize security without causing economic disruption.”

The Benefits & Pitfalls of 100-Percent Screening

Unfortunately, the practicality of fully implementing the “100-percent screening” mandate is questionable – so much so that today, nearly six years since the 9/11 Commission Law was enacted, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has failed to implement the mandate ordered by Congress.

Given the complexity and magnitude of the global supply chain, as well as the massive number   of containers transported to and from the United States each year, U.S. seaports remain susceptible to a broad spectrum of threats that domestic as well as international terrorists may be able to exploit. Although the U.S. intelligence community has long suggested the possibility of terrorists smuggling a WMD into the United States inside a shipping container is relatively low, the vulnerability to such an attack is theoretically very high.

According to the CBP, in fact, agency officials scanned only 473,380 – about 4.1 percent of the approximately 11.5 million containers shipped into U.S. ports in 2012 – with X-ray or gamma-ray machines, and some shipments getting only a cursory paperwork review. The low percentage of scanned cargo is officially rationalized as a “layered risk-based approach” to cargo scanning and focuses primarily on specific cargo considered to be “high risk” – how that term is defined and bestowed is not always clear.

Detecting radioactive materials or any other harmful matter at U.S. ports clearly remains a challenge for federal officials. However, U.S. Representative Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, accepts the current approach. In a statement before the subcommittee on 7 February 2012, she acknowledged that, “We all recognize it [the current process] may be optimal but perhaps not realistic from a cost perspective.” She also reiterated a statement from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano that, “The 9/11 Act’s mandate to scan 100% of maritime cargo containers is not achievable, does not necessarily make sense, and is not in line with the current risk-based approach.”

At the same hearing, though, former Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) said that a successful terrorist attack “on one of our ports, such as the Port of Los Angeles or the Port of Long Beach, would have a devastating economic impact and severely impact the global supply chain. The cost of one terrorist attack in our ports,” she continued, “would far surpass the costs of instituting the 100 percent container scanning that is required by law and was recommended by the 9/11 Commission. We have been extremely fortunate that an attack has not yet occurred in our ports.”

A Recipe for Disaster – Funding Cuts & Dense Populations

The Megaports Initiative – a collaborative effort between DHS, the U.S. Department of State, and their counterparts in U.S. international partners – is also facing severe spending cuts. The U.S. government has spent roughly $850 million on 42 different maritime security projects in 31 other nations to carry out such tasks as: (a) providing the seaports of other nations with radiation recognition equipment; (b) training foreign inspectors; and (c) providing other assistance to the employees of foreign governments who operate the ports.

Whether that funding stream will continue at the same level seems doubtful. According to a GAO statement in November 2012, “The administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal would reduce the Initiative’s budget by about 85 percent, and NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] plans to shift the Initiative’s focus from establishing new Megaports to sustaining existing ones.”

It is important to note that a number of America’s seaports can be found in or near highly populated areas and, therefore, are attractive targets for a terrorist organization. The New York region, for example, is home to approximately 19 million people. The consequences of a WMD or nuclear attack at the Port of New York and New Jersey could be cataclysmic.

According to 2006 estimates by the RAND Corporation and a 2005 report from the Congressional Research Service, an attack on a U.S. seaport could cause thousands of deaths and severely impair international trade, with damages ranging from a “low” of $45 billion to more than $1 trillion. In order for the 100-percent screening mandate to be fully realized, regardless of costs associated with the mandate, DHS must safeguard the movement of cargo at each and every link of the supply chain, beginning at the port of origin, continuing during the entire time the cargo is in passage, and not ending until such time as the cargo reaches its port of destination in the United States. In short, simply inspecting the cargo manifest – the rather porous “inspection process” often used – is no longer sufficient.

In summary, the costs associated with scanning all maritime cargo containers before they arrive in this country are great, but the consequences of not doing so could be much greater. Securing the nation will become increasingly more difficult as budgets continue to decrease, screening and security measures are delayed until after containers reach their U.S. destination, and only a small percentage of the scanning required is actually carried out – on random containers.

In a worst-case situation, a nuclear weapon concealed inside a cargo container can be triggered from a distance. If a WMD does in fact happen to be detected at random by radiation portal monitors – in New York or Long Beach, perhaps – it may still be too late to stop or even mitigate the damage and to save the lives of tens of thousands of people living within the port area targeted.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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