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Policing America's Ports

The 19,000 cargo containers flowing into the United States each day pose a needle-in-the-haystack challenge to security officials worried about hidden terrorist weapons

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On an average day in the Port of New York and New Jersey, about 4,000 shipping containers—lined end to end, they would stretch 15 miles—are lifted off freighters and released into the arteries of American commerce. One recent morning, a U.S. Customs inspector named Michael Hegler, 47, cast a wary eye on just a fraction of that unending stream. Standing in the wheelhouse of an 850-foot Saudi Arabian ship docked at a Brooklyn terminal, taking in a view of the Statue of Liberty and a striking patch of Manhattan real estate once dominated by the World Trade Center towers, Hegler gazed down at the ship’s deck, five stories below.

It was covered with rectangular steel containers, most of them 40 feet long and stamped “NSCSA,” for the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia. Stacked four high and lashed to the deck with long metal rods, the containers had passed through a few exotic locales: Karachi, Pakistan; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Those ports are likely to attract the interest of American law enforcement nowadays, and Hegler was giving his full attention to the 148 containers being picked off the deck by a giant blue crane and deposited on the wharf. Normally, the men and women of U.S. Customs and Border Protection target for inspection only about 3 percent of the seven million containers that pour into the United States each year. But given the pedigree of these boxes, they would all be screened.

Tractor-trailers carried the containers 150 yards to a gamma-ray machine, a truck-mounted device that uses gamma rays instead of X-rays to penetrate an object and visualize its contents. The machine’s arm reaches over a container’s top. In the truck’s cabin, one customs inspector glanced at an electronic manifest of the container’s contents while another watched a computer screen showing the gamma-ray scans. To the uninitiated, the image looked like a dusky blur, but soon you could see the outlines of the goods—ceramic tiles, furniture, machinery, electronics, cartons of clothing. Then, something caught the inspector’s eye: inside a load of quilts from Pakistan was a long, tube-shaped metal object. Explosives? Uranium? Stinger missiles? An inspector had the container driven to a nearby warehouse for a closer look. There, inspectors unpacked the metal tubes and found . . . tractor parts. They were not listed on the manifest and thus imported illegally, but all the same they were only farm machinery. Meanwhile, Hegler and co-workers had become suspicious of several containers still on the ship and bound for other U.S. ports. Most bore small, metal and plastic shipping seals that were affixed improperly or showed signs of tampering. Hegler, who has a powerful build and curly blond hair that falls to his collar, snipped one of the seals with bolt cutters. Other inspectors swung the container doors open and slit a few boxes. They climbed over cardboard cartons to look into the container’s farthest corners. But they discovered only household goods and cases of Italian wine.

By the end of the day, Hegler and his fellow customs inspectors had found no terrorists, no weapons, nothing that could remotely be linked to Al Qaeda. The same was true that day of their counterparts at the five other port terminals in New York City and northern New Jersey, and of the thousands of customs inspectors in Charleston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and points in between. In fact, since September 11, 2001, the small army of inspectors at America’s 361 seaports, having scanned or inspected tens of thousands of containers and pored over hundreds of thousands of manifests, have found not a shred of physical evidence that smacks of a terrorist plot.

Optimists might take heart, pointing out that despite seemingly impossible odds—analysts have compared finding a weapon of mass destruction among seven million containers to catching a minnow going over Niagara Falls—the customs bureau has erected sufficient barriers to deter Al Qaeda. But pessimists have reason to fret. Customs inspectors may have simply missed a smuggled bomb or batch of missiles. If so, it’s not for lack of motivation. “Many people here watched the 9/11 attack from their office windows, and you don’t have to tell us twice what the mission is,” said Kevin McCabe, chief inspector for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Port of New York City and New Jersey. “It’s very clear.”

The problem is that McCabe and his co-workers are at the receiving end of a giant global conveyor belt that carries steel boxes whose contents are declared by the shipper but are rarely verified along the way. “The system is absolutely wide open, and anybody with 3,000 bucks in Asia and a little less in Europe can get a box delivered to their lot or home and they can load it to the gills with whatever they want, close it with a 50-cent lead seal, and it’s off to the races,” says Stephen E. Flynn, a 43-year-old retired Coast Guard commander and an expert on seaport security. “As I look at the cargo transport system today, when I wake up each morning and see that we haven’t had an attack, I just declare ourselves lucky. The secretary of the treasury, the secretary of defense, the secretary of commerce, the secretary of state and the president of the United States should be tossing and turning at night knowing that this system has so little security.”

The challenge of safeguarding ports and monitoring the contents of all those 20- and 40-foot boxes is daunting enough. But it also poses a quandary, pitting our need for security against the ideal of an open society and free trade. The container network is the circulatory system of the new global economy, carrying 90 percent of international commerce. Some 11 million containers are shuttled around the world, bringing $500 billion worth of goods in and out of the United States from 178,000 foreign businesses.

This system, however, was designed for speed and efficiency, not security. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection—now part of the Department of Homeland Security—tightened its screening of incoming containers, overhauling computer programs to target high-risk shipments and using new X-ray and gamma-ray machines to inspect them. But according to Flynn and other security experts, the government has not done nearly enough to monitor what’s being stuffed into the containers overseas. (The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.)

The reason for the experts’ concern is that shipping containers could readily transport chemical or biological weapons, explosives, missiles or components for nuclear weapons. Broken into small batches, such weapons could be hidden among shipments of machinery, foodstuffs or thousands of other commodities that arrive each day at American ports. Even if a container is pulled out of the trade stream and targeted for inspection by gamma-ray machines and radiation detectors, it’s possible that customs inspectors won’t spot a weapon. Twice in the past two years, ABC News has succeeded in smuggling a 15-pound lump of depleted uranium—supplied by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group—into U.S. ports. In both instances, inspectors ran the containers through gamma-ray and radiation screeners, but failed to detect the material. Customs officials deny the implication that the inspections system failed; they say depleted uranium is not considered dangerous and they would have spotted the sort of enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons because it emits detectable levels of radiation. But some nuclear scientists disagree, saying that, given the detection devices in use today and the radiation shielding that terrorists might employ, weapons-grade radioactive material would have been even harder to spot than the depleted uranium.

Security experts are concerned not only about the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction in a city but also about an attack on a major port. Such an assault would almost certainly force the government to shut down the nation’s container system for a significant period of time, crippling major sectors of the economy. “What I’m almost certain of, from talking with people at senior levels of government, is that if we have a major event involving one of our ports and a container, we will stand down the system,” says Flynn, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the principal adviser to the Congressional Port Security Caucus. “We will shut it off until we sort it out. Now, how is the president, when he stands in front of the American people after a very visible and deadly act, going to reassure them that these other containers can roll across our borders and into our ports without worrying about them?”

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