- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

U.S. customs agents will begin working in Middle Eastern ports to search out cargo containing weapons smuggled by terrorists, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced yesterday.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, part of the Homeland Security Department, initiated the Container Security Initiative in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks to help protect the United States against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that could be smuggled on ships.

In the program’s first phase, begun in January 2002, the Customs Bureau focused on the world’s top 20 ports — it has signed agreements with 19 of them to allow U.S. agents to work at their facilities.

“Now that we have almost achieved our goal for [the container security initiative] at nearly all of the top 20 ports, we will be expanding … to other ports that ship substantial amounts of cargo to the United States and that have the infrastructure and technology in place to participate in the program,” Mr. Ridge said during an event in Port Elizabeth, N.J.

The program will be expanded to include areas of the Middle East such as Dubai, Turkey and Malaysia, Mr. Ridge said. The United States also is coordinating agreements with Sri Lanka, as well as key ports in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe.

The top 20 ports account for about two-thirds of all cargo containers shipped to the United States.

The second phase of the security initiative is designed to extend the program to more than 80 percent of containers, Mr. Ridge said.

Annually, about 200 million sea cargo containers — steel boxes that look like truck trailers — move among the world’s top seaports, and almost 50 percent of the value of all U.S. imports arrives via the containers, according to U.S. customs.

The Customs Bureau deploys small teams of officers to the selected ports, where they help identify containers with potential terrorist risks. U.S. agents do not have the power to enforce laws on foreign soil, so they analyze information to help target potential threats while foreign officials are responsible for screening the cargo on their home turf.

“Through information sharing with our international partners, several different levels of inspection, review of intelligence information on the crew, cargo and vessel long before they reach our shores, state-of-the-art technology, and, of course, vigilance at every turn, we are able to screen and board 100 percent of high-risk vessels coming into our ports,” Mr. Ridge said.

Because not all ports are included in the cargo security initiative, some countries or trade blocs have worried that trade could be diverted from nonparticipating ports to participating ports. The European Union has complained that smaller ports in the 15-nation bloc could suffer.

The U.S. Customs Bureau has said the strategy of targeting the largest and most strategically important ports is logical.

The container security initiative is one of several programs designed by customs or mandated by Congress to protect ports and trade since September 11.

At the event in Port Elizabeth yesterday, Mr. Ridge also announced $170 million in port security grants and $58 million in funding for a pilot program to analyze security procedures.

The grant program focuses on dockside and perimeter security, such as new patrol boats in the harbor, surveillance equipment at roads and bridges, and the construction of new command and control facilities, the Homeland Security Department said.

Despite the announcement, critics in Congress said the Bush administration has not paid enough attention, or spent enough money, on security issues.

“The administration’s commitment to port security is not enough,” said Andy Davis, a spokesman for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat and author of a maritime security bill approved by Congress in the fall.

“When you consider the potential economic and human consequences of a terrorist attack, it makes no sense to nickel and dime [port security],” Mr. Davis said.

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