Closing the Door at the Ports
A flurry of money, research, and law aims to close a gap in the U.S. security net
ELIZABETH, N.J.It didn't take too long after September 11 for Chief Kevin McCabe, the official overseeing screening in the sprawling Port of New York/New Jersey complex here, to realize that his job was about to become a lot more stressful. Within months, he was handed an intelligence tip that a container on the way to the port held a so-called dirty bomb made with radioactive material. On the day it arrived, McCabe's team isolated it from 8,000 other container boxes, fed it through a radiation detection machine and an X-ray imager, and then punched holes in its roof to sample the air inside. "It was full of colorful Arabian carpets," McCabe says today, "and that was it." Still, he says officials were "only minutes away" from shutting down the massive port complex.
McCabe's job isn't getting any easier. Nothing's happened yet, but many security analysts believe the smuggling of a nuclear weapon into the United States through a seaport is a very real possibility. The country's 361 commercial ports, meanwhile, have gotten so little funding in the past five years that experts routinely call them the "soft underbelly" of America. In recent months, a flare-up of public indignation over foreign ownership of U.S. port terminals has sparked some major improvements, but further progress is by no means assured, and a host of vulnerabilities remain. With 95 percent of America's imports arriving by sea, there's a lot at stake. "Bomb a seaport," says Joe Curto, an executive vice president of the Maher Terminals here, "and you'll feel it in Iowa supermarkets two days later."
Searching. By any measure, the security challenge is daunting. About 11 million containers arrive by sea each year; U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials closely inspect fewer than 10 percent of them. There have been improvements, though. Prior to 9/11, McCabe says, "every single port was on its own" trying to decide which containers to scrutinize most thoroughly. Customs has since created an automated targeting program that checks the manifests of shipments headed to the United States for anomalies that tag them as "high risk." The Department of Homeland Security has also scooped up 305 radiation monitors once used to detect contaminated scrap metal; today they scan about 83 percent of cargo after it arrives. On a recent morning in Elizabeth, trucks loaded with fresh containers waited in line to exit Maher Terminals. "The only way to drive out," Curto says, "is through those [machines]."
But "we're still pretty far from where we need to be," says Stephen Flynn, a port security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. One reason: Major security initiatives are still in their infancy. A trusted-shipper programin which companies boost security in exchange for less customs scrutinyruns basically on the honor system. Overworked customs inspectors haven't visited about a third of the companies enjoying benefits, and Flynn says many inspectors "aren't exactly experts" in securing the dense network of factories, distribution centers, and couriers that can handle shipments. Staffing crunches have also undermined a separate program that places U.S. Customs officials in 48 foreign ports like Shanghai. A 2005 government study found that 28 percent of containers deemed risky enough for foreign inspections weren't even touched.