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Slipping through the net and into our ports

By Alwyn Scott
Seattle Times business reporter

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. has developed a sophisticated system of nets to catch dangerous foreign cargo before it gets into the U.S.

The problem, critics say, is that the nets are full of holes.

Those holes allowed a cargo container holding 22 Chinese stowaways to land April 4 at the Port of Seattle, unloaded from the M/V Rotterdam.

The container likely would have sat for several days before anyone inspected it, said Mike Milne, a Seattle spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency in charge of such inspections.

Of course, long before that, in the early-morning darkness, the stowaways crept out into the orange floodlights of the Terminal 18 dock, where they were seen by a private security guard and apprehended.

Security officials call the capture a success because CBP had singled out the container for further scrutiny before it would be moved from the Port.

"This one was initially set up for an [X-ray type scanning] exam sometime during the next two or three days following its arrival, which is a standard time frame for containers," Milne said.

"We didn't let that container through," Milne said. "If it hadn't been set aside by CBP, the container would have been down the road."

Critics, however, say leaving a container with unknown cargo at a U.S. terminal for several days shows the system isn't secure.

"Imagine this being a dirty bomb," said Shay Hancock, an aide to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "It's a little too late to find out about that when it comes into the Port of Seattle."

Murray and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have sponsored a bill that would toughen port security, including putting more scanners overseas.

Five years after Sept. 11, "I still do not sleep well knowing all the vulnerabilities in our port-security system," Mic Dinsmore, Port of Seattle chief executive, told Congress in testimony a day before the stowaways were discovered. "The rate at which containers are screened is abysmal and the controls we have for allowing persons to get onto our marine terminals are almost embarrassing."

Looking closely at how such a container arrives on the dock in Seattle suggests the holes in U.S. port security.

Pushing out the borders

The first line of defense is at major ports overseas. According to CBP, 24 hours before any container is put on a ship bound for the U.S., information about what's in it known as a manifest is sent electronically to the National Targeting Center in Reston, Va. Analysts use a database known as the Automated Targeting System to crunch details about each shipment and assign a risk score.

High-risk cargo is supposed to be stopped and inspected before it is put on the ship.

But some cargo dodges this first net.

Inspections are carried out at only 44 foreign ports that participate in the inspection program, known as the "Container Security Initiative." Those ports handle 77 percent of the boxes that enter the U.S. by sea, CBP said.

A very small percentage of cargo passing through the CSI ports is actually inspected there CBP was unable to provide a figure. Milne estimated it at less than 6 percent, and Dennis Murphy, a former assistant commissioner at the U.S. Customs Service, said it was probably less than 5 percent.

Moreover, even the majority of cargo CBP identifies as high risk at CSI ports is not inspected before it gets on a boat. According to the findings in Murray's bill, only 17.5 percent of cargo assessed as high-risk is inspected overseas, and the inspections are carried out by foreign officials using equipment that is "untested and of unknown quality."

"That means 82.5 percent of the high-risk cargo is getting to the U.S. without being inspected," said Hancock, Murray's aide.

The stowaways' container is a case in point. An inspection could have spotted them in Shanghai, before their container was put on the ship, because Shanghai is a CSI port.

Although the CBP now says something about the container's documentation caught authorities' attention it won't say what the cargo was not considered dangerous, said Milne, the CBP spokesman in Seattle.

"It didn't meet the elements that they particularly were looking for," Milne said. "CBP officers overseas are there to prevent weapons of mass destruction from coming into the U.S.," Milne said.

So the container was put onboard.

During the 15 days it took to reach Seattle, CBP officials looked again at information about the container and decided it needed to be inspected before being allowed out of the Port, Milne said.

CBP says it inspects about 6 percent of the sea containers that make it to U.S. shores, including all those it targets as high-risk that weren't inspected overseas.

But Hancock has his doubts. "I believe there's still a reasonable percentage that's sliding through unchecked on either end," he said.

System for big shippers has its own flaws

A separate net is supposed to gather familiar cargo from well-known, major importers and keep it moving smoothly by avoiding inspections. And that system has its own holes.

The program, known as C-TPAT, makes private companies partners in policing their cargos. They agree to have their supply chains checked so CBP officials are familiar with everyone involved in getting goods from the factory floor to the store floor, said Kelby Woodard, a principal at TradeInnovations, a consultancy based in Minneapolis, Minn.

About 10,000 importers accounting for about 70 percent of seaborne cargo have signed up, including Starbucks, Boeing, Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot, Woodard said.

But while they handle the most cargo, they are only a fraction of the 400,000 importers bringing containers into the country that could ship a rogue box, Woodard said.

What's more, only 1,300 of the C-TPAT applicants have actually had their supply chains checked, CBP said. Yet their cargo isn't generally inspected because it is considered low-risk, Woodard said.

"Today, a good proportion of product flows through the system with only its information being validated" rather than an actual inspection, said Woodard, who helped design C-TPAT.

The Murray-Collins bill would shift all of this C-TPAT cargo into the inspection lane.

In effect, it would place an airportlike baggage-screening system overseas to check supposedly low-risk cargo from C-TPAT shippers. The capacity also would allow for more high-risk cargo from outside C-TPAT to be scanned.

Murray doesn't think it will slow container handling overseas, provided there is enough equipment. And it would allow this cargo to clear U.S. ports faster.

"Once they get to the U.S., they get a free pass right out of the gate," Hancock said.

The inner perimeter

That would ease pressure on the second line of defense: the home ports.

A network of agencies Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard, State Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is involved in security at domestic ports, which handled 10.8 million seaborne containers in the fiscal year ending in September 2005.

The agencies occasionally work together to conduct sweeps periods when all containers moving through a port are stopped and inspected, said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Dix in Seattle.

The highest priority is to screen all containers for radioactive material that could be used as a nuclear weapon or in a "dirty bomb" that spreads radiation. Scanners, known as radiation portal monitors or RPMs, are still being installed at many ports. Seattle and Tacoma have the machines at some terminals, but not all, Milne said.

Nationwide, Milne said, RPMs screen 51 percent of the seaborne containers entering the U.S., a figure that's expected to rise to 65 percent by September, Milne said. As recently as February, only one-third of containers were screened for radiation.

Although CBP agents wear radiation "pagers" on their belts to alert them to radioactive material, full RPM scans are done only when containers leave the port, not when they enter. Containers set aside for inspection can sit for days without receiving such an RPM scan. That was the case with the stowaways.

And even where monitors find radiation, Customs agents are sometimes lax. A Government Accountability Office report released last month said that in two tests of borders with Canada and Mexico, scanners detected radiation, but fake paperwork allowed the cargo into the U.S.

"Our investigators were able to enter the United States with enough radioactive sources to make two dirty bombs using counterfeit documents," the report said.

The next priority is to screen for drugs, illegal immigrants and other contraband. About 6 percent of incoming containers are set aside for these types of inspections, Milne said.

Some are taken to warehouses and unloaded. Others are scanned with imaging machines, such as the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS), which uses gamma rays to look inside the box. The scan takes just two or three minutes.

VACIS-type images last month found two Guyanese nationals hiding inside a truck entering the U.S. from Canada at Buffalo, N.Y. An image on the CBP Web site shows an X-ray-like image with two people visible inside the container.

But the stowaways in Seattle emerged from their hiding place long before such a scan would have been performed.

Did defenses fail?

It's still unknown what tipped agents off to the stowaway container. Milne declined to disclose the manifest's contents, or who had paid to import the container to the U.S. All of that is proprietary business information, he said.

Terminal operators also don't know what's in the boxes they handle. Bob Watters, vice president of SSA Marine, the company that operates Terminal 18 and set aside the stowaway container, said his crews are told which boxes CBP wants to inspect but are not given manifest information.

He also said earlier reports that the container was too light were wrong. Containers are not weighed as they are unloaded from ships.

"The reason it was set aside was because CBP noticed issues with the manifest. They made the designation to set it aside," Watters said.

Critics said the system of defenses failed because it didn't stop the container or identify the contents either abroad or in the U.S.

"It was set aside and nothing was done with it," said Hancock, the Murray aide. "It wasn't until the next morning that our last line of defense the terminal security guard spotted people moving around."

But Milne said the system worked the way it was supposed to. The CBP people in Shanghai passed the container on because it wasn't a bomb threat, and the cargo was stopped in Seattle.

"That's why there are 8-foot fences with barb wire on them," he said. "That's why there are security personnel hired by terminal operators."

Alwyn Scott 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com