Port Security Still Needs Tightening, Reports Say

Two new congressional reports criticizing the national effort to prevent cargo containers from being used by terrorists will be released Thursday. Members of Congress and outside experts say too many security gaps in the container-shipping industry remain, including lack of enforcement of existing security programs.

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Two congressional reports being released tomorrow will criticize government efforts to prevent cargo containers from being used in terrorist attacks. About 10 million containers enter the nation's ports each year. Members of Congress and outside experts are worried that too many security gaps remain. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Two events earlier this year caught lawmakers' attention. In April, security guards at the Port of Los Angeles discovered that 28 Chinese nationals had been smuggled into the country in two cargo containers. At the same port in January, a crane operator saw several men emerging from a hole in another container. That time it was 32 Chinese stowaways. Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman is from California.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): If not for that astute crane operator, the cargo container would have certainly made its way past port inspectors and into Greater Los Angeles. That cargo could have been a 32-man terrorist cell.

FESSLER: Homeland Security officials note that in each case, the stowaways were caught, but lawmakers say that's not very reassuring. They want a closer look at one of the main container security programs called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism or C-TPAT. It gives importers, shippers and others incentives to tighten security but it's completely voluntary.

Mr. STEPHEN FLYNN (Council on Foreign Relations): It's really as a trust but don't verify program.

FESSLER: Stephen Flynn is with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. FLYNN: It basically asks companies to take a look at their operations to adopt, establish security protocols, but without anybody ever looking over their shoulders to see if they have done it.

FESSLER: Customs officials say that's not exactly true. Nine thousand companies have signed up for the program and so far more than half have had their security plans approved. About 600 have had their sites actually inspected. Charles Bartoldus runs targeting and security for Customs. He says importers with approved security plans can benefit by having fewer of their containers stopped for inspection.

Mr. CHARLES BARTOLDUS (US Customs Service): We reviewed their entire history of importation to make sure that we've never had a problem with them in the past, that they have a current history dealing with the United States government, that we've looked at their cargo, we've found no security issues with them and all of their paperwork and all of their prior shipments make sense.

FESSLER: But the Government Accountability Office is expected to report at a Senate hearing tomorrow that companies receive too many benefits with little evidence that their security plans actually work. Rob Quartel, a former member of the Federal Maritime Commission and head of a shipping data firm, agrees. He thinks C-TPAT is a good idea but says today it has no teeth.

Mr. ROB QUARTEL (Federal Maritime Commission): The fact of the matter is there's not much that hurts and I would argue that if it doesn't hurt that it's not likely to be incredibly effective. It's not really making you do something different.

FESSLER: He, like some lawmakers, worries that the program could provide a false sense of security. Chris Koch is president and CEO of the World Shipping Council, which represents major shipping lines. He notes that Customs relies mainly on the manifest it receives from the ship carrying the containers.

Mr. CHRIS KOCH (President and CEO, World Shipping Council): But it doesn't have all the information about the shipment. It doesn't who the buyer of the goods are. It doesn't know who the seller of the goods are. It may or may not know where the goods are coming from.

FESSLER: The GAO is also expected to find problems with another program called the Container Security Initiative. It places US Customs officials overseas so high-risk containers can be inspected before the leave for the United States, but few containers are actually inspected abroad and Rob Quartel says Customs agents have limited access in foreign ports.

Mr. QUARTEL: Some places have tremendous cooperation and they work side by side. In other places like Le Havre, I'm told, you know, they keep them in a back room.

FESSLER: Bartoldus of Customs says the agency is addressing all of GAO's concerns. For example, Customs agents are now assigned to foreign ports for a year rather than an earlier 90-day rotation. And there are stricter security requirements before a company can get C-TPAT benefits. As for the Chinese stowaways, he says, the screening system did work to a point. All the containers used by the smugglers had been flagged for inspection.

Mr. BARTOLDUS: We said we've never seen this company in this format shipping through that port before. So this is a high risk or we need to examine this cargo when it comes in.

FESSLER: And unfortunately that didn't occur before the stowaways got out. Now, says Bartoldus, Customs officials are meeting vessels as they arrive and will immediately search containers that look suspicious.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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