- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

Cargo bound for the United States from overseas ports faces increased scrutiny beginning next month as the U.S. Customs Service begins an extensive program to prevent the exploitation by terrorists of global containerized shipping.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said beginning Feb. 1, sea carriers will be required to provide specific details of the contents of containers being shipped to this country 24 hours before they are loaded onto vessels at foreign ports.

Globally, nearly 48 million full cargo containers move annually between major seaports. Each year, more than 16 million of them arrive in this country by ship, truck and rail.

"We don't want to wait until they arrive in the United States to find out what's in these containers," said Mr. Bonner. "With 60 percent of the containers worldwide headed to the United States, it's a big job but an important one as we attempt to battle terrorism on every front."

Of major concern to Mr. Bonner and the Customs Service is the potential use by terrorists of U.S.-bound containers to hide nuclear weapons and radiological materials.

"An important part of our strategy to address the nuclear and radiological threat is pushing our zone of security outward so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense against such a threat," said Mr. Bonner.

Under a program known as the Container Security Initiative (CSI), the Customs Service will partner with foreign governments to target and screen high-risk containers for nuclear and radiological materials before they are shipped to U.S. ports.

Mr. Bonner said the targeting aspect of CSI involves the use of sophisticated technology to identify high-risk containers, those that may contain terrorist weapons or even terrorists themselves. A risk assessment can be made in a just a few seconds, he said.

Radiation detectors and large-scale X-ray and gamma ray machines will be used to examine containers designated as high risk. In combination, these technologies are capable of detecting nuclear or radiological materials.

The Customs Service screening program has become an important part of President Bush's national strategy for homeland security, and seven countries representing 11 of the top 20 ports that ship cargo to the United States have already agreed to implement the program.

Mr. Bonner said Customs has deployed to seaports and land border ports of entry nearly 100 large-scale X-ray and gamma ray systems that assist inspectors in screening cargo containers and conveyances for potential terrorist weapons, including nuclear weapons and radiological materials.

He said more than 5,000 personal radiation detectors have been given to Customs personnel to provide coverage at every port of entry into the United States and that the agency has deployed more than 200 X-ray van-mounted radiation-detection units, which can detect radiation in small packages passed through the X-ray van.

Those overseas companies that fail to provide accurate information concerning the content of containers bound for the United States 24 hours before loading could be barred from unloading cargo containers at a U.S. port and could be fined.

Started by Customs in January 2002, CSI consists of four core elements: using automated information to identify and target high-risk containers; prescreening containers identified as high-risk before they arrive at U.S. ports; using detection technology to quickly prescreen high-risk containers; and using smarter, tamper-proof containers.

Mr. Bonner said the initial objective was to implement CSI at ports that send large volumes of cargo containers to this country, in a way that will facilitate detection of potential security concerns at their earliest possible opportunity.

"We are in the process of getting CSI implemented in those ports that have signed on. We have deployed and will continue to deploy teams to the participating ports as quickly as possible," Mr. Bonner said. "We are looking to expand CSI beyond the top 20 ports, as rapidly as we can."

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