- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

U.S. Customs officers check containers for concealed terror

Officers from the U.S. Customs Service moved in here early this year to search for the one steel container that terrorists could use to blow apart international trade. Tomorrow they set up shop in Europe. By the end of the year, they will head to Asia.
In Montreal, two U.S. Customs agents with shiny badges and creased blue uniforms sit side-by-side with their counterparts from the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency in a low-slung building at the east end of the port that stretches 16 miles down the St. Lawrence River.
Since March, they have been combing through the documents listing the contents of roughly 500,000 containers, those ubiquitous steel boxes that look like truck trailers, searching for the one that could be a Trojan horse for terrorism.
The 500,000 containers, unlike the others that come through the Port of Montreal, will go by truck or train to the Northeastern United States, where crowded American ports often cannot keep up with demand.
With data piped in from a customs computer facility in Newington, Va., U.S. officers try to single out the boxes that are the most likely security threats. Aided by Canadian intelligence, containers that come from suspect countries, or ones handled by importers with spotty records, are diverted to the Canadian inspection station in the warehouse next door.
"Anything that's high risk will have a combination of indicators," said Chris Thibedeau, a senior program adviser with Canadian Customs.
Canadians handle the search of a container. American agents, lacking the power to enforce laws and carry guns on foreign soil, are "targeters" responsible for analyzing documents on paper and on computer screens, and choosing the boxes that are mostly likely a threat.
Last month, for example, a container full of maroon chenille blankets from India was opened and photographed, should agents need to reconstruct it for a criminal investigation. Then, every burlap-covered box was put through a portable X-ray machine and stacked on pallets. A black labrador retriever named Twister sniffed them for drugs.
Finally, an agent searched the empty container's voids hollow beams, thick flooring that could hold drugs or explosives. The process took about three hours.
Mr. Thibedeau contacts his American counterpart, Doug Chapman, almost daily, a change since September 11. Mr. Chapman, a program officer with customs in Washington, said the goal is to make sure the time-consuming searches are focused on the most suspicious containers.
"The U.S. Customs officers fill in the blanks," he said.
Customs officers are going to Canada and beyond in an attempt to increase the long odds that the United States faces in making container trade secure. Only 3 percent of containers are searched before crossing the border, and customs is counting on foreign governments to help avoid a nightmarish nuke-in-the-box scenario by finding the container before it arrives in the United States.
Since the world's 240 million containers help move two-thirds of oceanborne commerce to and from the United States, the threat to container transport has become arguably the most serious economic threat to come out of September 11.
"We're talking about shutting down global trade if something goes south," said Stephen Flynn, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied the vulnerabilty of commerce to terrorism. "I can't think of a more compelling national interest."
Soft spot
Container shipping is efficient enough that, on average, an American family pays $133 per year in transportation costs for goods from around the world, according to the World Shipping Council, an industry group.
Shipping lines, retailers that import billions of dollars in merchandise each year, and other businesses involved with trade are cooperating with customs' plans to make containers more secure, but the cost will ripple throughout the transportation system.
"No matter what happens, the end consumer you and I are going to pay for this," said Barry Wilkins, a cargo security specialist with Pinkerton Consulting in Charlotte, N.C.
Terrorists already see container shipping as a potential soft spot.
In October, Italian authorities arrested a suspected al Qaeda terrorist who had camped out in a container bound for Montreal and, eventually, the United States. The man, an Egyptian, had airport maps, airport security passes and an airplane mechanic's certificate.
U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, the American official who has taken control of container security policy for the Bush administration, said his daily intelligence briefings, instituted after September 11, have not revealed "anything specific" regarding containers. But he said a terrorist attack using a container in a U.S. port would force him to take measures that would make the post-attack airline shutdown look mild by comparison, because the big steel boxes can move only by ship.
"The world economy would collapse," he said. "There is no alternative to moving oceangoing containers."
Industry veterans play down threats such as Mr. Bonner's as attempts to draw public attention to his work.
"It's like saying, 'You hit us, and we'll put a blockade on our own economy,'" said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council. "We'd strangle ourselves."
Campaigning abroad
Mr. Bonner has embarked on a broad diplomatic and regulatory campaign to tighten security.
First, the Bush administration is petitioning the world's 20 largest ports to follow the Canadian model by having U.S. Customs officers, a move that has upset Europe and Asia.
Mr. Bonner is also leaning on the importers and exporters that use U.S. ports to devise their own security plans with the implicit threat that businesses that do not will find their shipments slow or detained in port.
In Washington, Mr. Bonner, a former federal judge and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has charged into a bureaucratic vacuum and emerged as the leader on trade security efforts, according to administration and industry officials. The Department of Transportation and the U.S. Coast Guard can claim a role in container security, but customs has set the pace.
"We are the only agency of the U.S. government that has broad border search authority," Mr. Bonner said. "I am going to use every authority that's available to me to secure the global trading system."
Customs' international strategy rests on the premise that containers screened by American agents before they leave foreign ports can enter the United States on the fast track.
As part of the December 2001 Smart Border Accord covering a variety of trade and immigration issues, Canada agreed to allow U.S. agents into the ports of Montreal; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Vancouver, British Columbia. Canadian officers, in turn, work in the ports of Newark, N.J.; and Seattle-Tacoma, Wash., to examine data on containers bound for their country.
"We protect Canadians best by protecting our American allies from world terror," said Elinor Caplan, the nation's minister of national revenue.
Other parts of the world are not as sanguine about American intentions as Canada, where 120 customs officers screened U.S.-bound passengers in Canadian airports before September 11. But many countries are falling into line.
Mr. Bonner has calculated that if the world's 20 busiest container ports take part in his "choke-point strategy," 68 percent of the 5.7 million containers that enter the United States each year will fall under tough, American-led scrutiny.
Customs has made headway. In the past six months, it has concluded agreements with the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and Singapore to station U.S. officers at the huge ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp, Le Havre, Bremerhaven and Hamburg, respectively. It is in talks with a half-dozen other countries.
Divide and conquer
The American approach has alarmed the 15-nation European Union. EU officials see it as a divide-and-conquer strategy that will give some European ports a U.S. stamp of approval that will let them move cargo more quickly than others and boost the incentive to play ball on Mr. Bonner's terms alone.
In July, EU Taxation Commissioner Frits Bolkestein and Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy told the Bush administration that container security could easily become the newest point of friction between the United States and Europe.
"Offering advantages in the USA to containers coming from a few ports only will have a significant impact on trade patterns and could lead to recriminations damaging to our commercial exchanges," they wrote.
In Asia, Mr. Bonner's effort has seen rough going as well. Hong Kong officials have worried that heightened security could impede the flow of containers through the port, the world's largest by volume, and they recently visited Canada to see how the program works there. They insist that Hong Kong shares the U.S. objective of more secure trade.
Some analysts suspect that the real problem is sovereignty. Hong Kong returned to the Chinese fold in 1999 after more than a century of British rule. Though Mr. Bonner said customs is talking to the Chinese about container security, having American law enforcement personnel on Chinese soil may be more than a fiercely nationalist China is willing to bear, a suspicion one Hong Kong official denied.
Europeans are pressing the United States to wait for the International Maritime Organization, a London affilitate of the United Nations, to set security standards when it meets in December. But Mr. Bonner said he wants to wrap up a network of customs accords by the end of the year.
"We need to implement this at a rapid rate of speed," Mr. Bonner said. "That's best done by a bilateral approach."
Patriotic silence
A similarly tough approach has cowed many importers, exporters and ocean carriers into a "patriotic silence" as customs presses ahead with a public-private partnership designed to make the supply chain more secure, said one industry source on the condition of anonymity.
Officially, the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism is voluntary and involves no regulations, but few people who have dealt with customs see it that way. Customs officials have stressed that companies that submit security plans to the agency more than 400 so far will see their cargo move over the border more smoothly.
"A customs inspector stood up with his gun and badge and said they wanted the cooperation of importers," said one participant after a meeting with importers in New York. "It's an offer you can't refuse."
Tough yet polite disagreements with customs have emerged over its proposed regulation that all importers file detailed information, called manifests, about the contents of every container 24 hours before they are loaded in a foreign port headed for the United States. The data are now due 48 hours before arrival in the United States.
Mr. Bonner has made this step a high priority, saying "advance manifest information" underpins customs' entire security operation, but business is leery.
The Port of Montreal, for example, is 600 miles closer to the giant container terminals of Rotterdam than New York is. Onerous security regulations, one industry official said, will quickly become the "Port of Montreal Development Act" as cargo from Europe heads to Montreal and Halifax to be hauled into the United States by rail or truck, not directly to U.S. ports.
Cargo haulers and ocean shippers grumble that many containers are filled only hours before they are loaded onto a departing ship. Big retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target worry that submitting manifests, which are public information, will create road maps for thieves, an industry source said.
Who pays?
Whether overseas or in Washington, the controversy over Mr. Bonner's efforts boils down to a political dust-up over the cash and commercial advantage in the era of anti-terrorism: Who will cover the cost of increased security that has become necessary since September 11?
At the eye of this storm are the ocean carriers, an industry that is set to lose $2 billion worldwide thanks to excess shipping capacity following the boom years of the 1990s. Denmark's Maersk Sealand, the largest container carrier in the world, imposed a security surcharge on some routes in March, and others could follow.
Alan Hicks, director of business development and government policy at the U.S. subsidiary of P&O; Nedlloyd, a London ocean carrier, said corporate executives around the world spend much more time on security issues. P&O; is also phasing in a hardened bolt seal for its containers and is using a new strategy to monitor the movement of individual boxes, measures that hit the bottom line.
"I can't give you a dollar amount," Mr. Hicks said, emphasizing that containers, which were invented in the 1950s to reduce theft, can be retooled to fight terrorism. "I'm not seeing huge additional costs, but we'll see."
Mr. Flynn, mindful of the costs of a terrorist incident at the ports, places his faith in technology that can seal a container at the factory where it is loaded, track it throughout the world and detect whether it has been opened. Technology could let trade move faster because customs would feel less need to search secured boxes, he said.
"We're going to find that when we build this system that the benefits outweigh the costs," he said.
But at about $100 per box for the best technology, security will not come cheap, at least not in the short term.
"It's going to cost billions around the planet," said Normand Fillion, vice president for marketing and development at the Port of Montreal, as he lingered on the docks next to an enormous container ship bound for Europe. "All because of a bunch of crazies on September 11."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide