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Lapses by port companies could allow terrorist attack, study says
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Lapses by private port operators, shipping lines or truck drivers could allow terrorists to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States, according to a government review of security at U.S. ports.
The $75 million, three-year study by the Homeland Security Department and still in progress included inspections at a New Jersey cargo terminal involved in the dispute over a Dubai company's bid, since abandoned, to take over significant operations at six U.S. ports.
The previously undisclosed results from the study found that cargo containers can be opened secretly during shipment to add or remove items without alerting U.S. authorities, according to government documents marked "sensitive security information" obtained by The Associated Press.
The study found serious lapses by companies at foreign and U.S. ports, aboard ships and on trucks and trains "that would enable unmanifested materials or weapons of mass destruction to be introduced into the supply chain."
The study, expected to be completed in the fall, used satellites and experimental monitors to trace roughly 20,000 cargo containers out of the millions arriving each year from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Most containers are sealed with mechanical bolts that can be cut and replaced or have doors that can be removed by dismantling hinges.
The risks from smuggled weapons are especially worrisome because U.S. authorities largely decide which cargo containers to inspect based on shipping records of what is thought to be inside.
Among the study's findings:
• Safety problems were not limited to overseas ports. A warehouse in Maine was graded less secure than any in Pakistan, Turkey or Brazil. "There is a perception that U.S. facilities benefit from superior security protection measures," the study said.
"This mind-set may contribute to a misplaced sense of confidence in American business practices."
• No records were kept of "cursory" inspections in Guatemala for containers filled with Starbucks coffee beans shipped to the West Coast. "Coffee beans were accessible to anyone entering the facility," the study said. It found significant mistakes on manifests and other paperwork. In a statement to the AP, Starbucks said it was reviewing its security procedures.
• Practices at Turkey's Port of Izmir were "totally inadequate by U.S. standards." But, the study noted, "It has been done that way for decades in Turkey."
• Containers could be opened aboard some ships during weekslong voyages to the United States. "Due to the time involved in transit [and] the fact that most vessel crew members are foreigners with limited credentialing and vetting, the containers are vulnerable to intrusion during the ocean voyage," the study said.
• Some governments will not help tighten security because they view terrorism as a U.S. problem. The United States said "certain countries," which were not identified, would not cooperate in its security study, "a tangible example of the lack of urgency with which these issues are regarded."
• Security was good at two terminals in Seattle and Tacoma. The operator in Seattle, SSA Marine, uses cameras and software to track visitors and workers. "We consider ourselves playing an important role in security," said the company's vice president, Bob Waters.
In theory, some nuclear materials inside cargo containers can be detected with special monitors. But such devices have frustrated port officials in New Jersey because bananas, kitty litter and fire detectors — which all emit natural radiation — set off the same alarms more than 100 times every day.
The study applauded efforts to install radiation monitors overseas. "While there is clearly value in nuclear detection at a U.S. port, that is precisely the concern — it is already on U.S. soil," it said.
Finding biological and chemical weapons inside cargo containers is less likely. The study said tests were "labor intensive, time-consuming and costly to use" and produced too many false alarms. "No silver bullet has emerged to render terrorists incapable of introducing WMD into containers," it said.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who advocated the study, said: "There are huge holes in our security system that need to be filled." She said the study "shows us there are major vulnerabilities over who handles cargo, where it's been and whether cargo is on a manifest."
Part of the study tested new tamper-evident locks on containers and tracking devices.
"It's important to figure out what works and what doesn't," said Elaine Dezenski, Homeland Security's acting assistant secretary for policy development. She said the study "gave us a much better view of vulnerabilities."
An important element
The study, "Operation Safe Commerce," undercuts arguments that port security in the United States is an exclusive province of the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection and is not managed by companies operating shipping terminals.
The theme was an important element in the Bush administration's forceful defense of the deal it originally approved to allow Dubai-owned Dubai Ports World (DP World) to handle significant operations at some terminals at ports in New York, Newark, N.J., Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
Bush and senior officials sought to assure lawmakers safety at ports would not decline.
"I can understand people's consternation because the first thing they heard was that a foreign company would be in charge of our port security when in fact, the Coast Guard and customs are in charge of our port security," Bush said Feb. 28.
DP World promised Thursday to transfer fully to a U.S. company the U.S. port operations it acquired when it bought London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation.
It was unclear how such a sale might occur, but the divestiture was expected to involve major operations at the six U.S. ports and affect lesser dockside activities at 16 other U.S. ports.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a leading critic of the Dubai deal, said anyone suggesting port operators and shipping companies were not involved with security was "living in La-La land."
"You can obviously have stuff in containers that doesn't make it onto manifests, either by design or from the actions of bad actors," Menendez said Friday. "A terminal operator is so involved in the overall security equation of ports."
Parts of the U.S. study examined the safety of containers sent to the same cargo terminal in New Jersey that DP World would have managed jointly and operated with its Denmark-based rival, Maersk Sealand.
Hundreds of pages of study documents do not list specific security lapses at the New Jersey terminal.
But the study broadly described problems in warehouses and other storage areas that raised doubts about the safety of containers brought to New Jersey's port. It cited problems with protective fences and gates, surveillance cameras and emergency plans.
The lengthy study has been beset by problems. Japan refused to allow officials to attach tracking devices to containers destined for the United States. Other tracking devices sometimes failed. Many shipping companies refused to disclose information for competitive reasons.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company