- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner yesterday assured a Senate subcommittee the government has tightened U.S. port security since September 11, although he got a stern warning from the panel’s chairman that critics “will be pointing right at you” if his efforts fail.

“Unfairly or not, CBP was thrust onto the front lines of our war on terrorism, placed in the untenable position of having to transform itself overnight from an agency focused on interdicting guns, drugs and money to the agency chiefly responsible for protecting us against a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security permanent subcommittee on investigations.

The panel is investigating the effectiveness of two major port security programs, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which the Minnesota Republican described as “the right concepts for security in our new threat environment.”

But noting that they have been in existence for more than three years, he said it was “time to start asking some tough questions and identifying how we can improve on these promising concepts.”

Mr. Bonner noted that 25,000 seagoing containers arrive at the nation’s seaports daily — more than 9 million a year — and the “greatest threat we face to global maritime security” is the potential for terrorists to use the containers to smuggle weapons or operatives into the country. He said if even a single container were to be “exploited by terrorists,” the disruption to trade and national economies would be “enormous.”

CSI allows CBP to screen and inspect high-risk containers at 36 foreign seaports before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound vessels, Mr. Bonner said. He called it one of the few multinational programs “actually protecting the primary means of global trade — containerized shipping — from being exploited or disrupted by international terrorists.”

Mr. Bonner said C-TPAT is a partnership with the shipping industry that requires importers to secure their supply chains from loading docks abroad to the ports of arrival in the U.S. In return, he said, it offers expedited processing.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report, said CBP inspects about a third of the containers overseas, about 17 percent of the high-risk cargo, and that equipment such as nuclear detection devices and nonintrusive inspection machines used overseas are untested and of unknown quality.

The GAO also said substantial benefits, including fewer inspections, are provided to C-TPAT importers without a thorough validation of their supply chain security, and of the validations that occur, the process “lacks any rigor or independence.”

Mr. Coleman said containers from overseas could serve as platforms to deliver weapons of mass destruction, noting that a 10 kiloton to 20 kiloton nuclear weapon detonated in a major seaport would kill as many as a million people and cause property damage of $500 billion.

“This is unfathomable and demonstrates why these programs are essential to homeland security,” he said.

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