Shipping Containers Could Hide
Threats To US
By Fred Bayles

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The odd noises that came from the 40-foot shipping container at Gioia Tauro, Italy, harbor in October demonstrated the danger facing officials at ports around the world.
When port authorities opened the suspect container, they found Amir Farid Rizk, 43, an Egyptian-born Canadian equipped with satellite phone, laptop, false credit cards and security passes for airports in Egypt, Thailand and Canada. Officials charged Rizk with terrorism but later released him after his lawyers argued he was fleeing religious and legal persecution in Egypt and was not a terrorist.
Rizk's choice of transportation highlighted a security problem that has troubled U.S. officials since well before Sept. 11.
More than 6 million shipping containers arrive here at Wando Welch yards in Charleston and other U.S. ports annually. Only 2% are inspected. The rest remain sealed as they are shipped throughout the country. It would be easy, some fear, to take a container, stuff it with explosives, a chemical weapon or a nuclear device and inject it into the nation's economic bloodstream.
Security experts had thought about the massive flow of unchecked containers before the attacks on New York and Washington. In the November 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen Flynn, a security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, offered this scenario.
Suppose, he wrote, Osama bin Laden loaded a biological weapon into a container and shipped it through foreign ports to the USA. The container, unnoticed in the day-to-day bustle of trade, could then be put on a rail car at Long Beach destined for Newark, N.J. Somewhere along the 2,800-mile route, it is detonated.

As bad as the destruction such an attack might cause, the chaos that would follow could devastate the nation's economy.

The nation's shipping system could shut down, as airports did after Sept. 11. ''The economic damage would be incalculable,'' Flynn says. ''It would accomplish what a terrorist group wants to do, which is to disrupt this country's economic structure.''

So what can be done? Looking inside each of the 6 million containers from abroad would disrupt the flow of goods. Technological solutions, including X-ray machines, are costly, expensive and not infallible. The answer may lie in better surveillance at the container's point of origin. Instead of inspecting every container upon arrival, sophisticated computer and intelligence systems are being established to identify suspicious containers before they leave foreign ports.

''You want to do something that doesn't wait until the container is offloaded here,'' U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner says. ''The big idea is to think about how to push the border back.''

Wando Welch

In South Carolina, the blur of movement at the port of Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal vividly shows the shipping business's need for speed.

Massive cranes lift cargo containers off merchant ships arriving from around the world. The containers are stacked like giant Lego pieces across the 237-acre facility.

The activity at this, the nation's third-busiest container facility, is a tribute to the efficiency of the ''intermodal'' transportation system, which makes possible the quick transfer of seaborne containers to railcars and trucks without unloading and reloading their contents. The system touches every facet of the economy. Each state receives goods from an average 15 different ports every day, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

That is why the industry balks at inspecting every container coming into the country. Several members of Congress, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have proposed such steps.

At the Wando yards, the time a Customs inspector needs to examine a single container illustrates the challenge. One container, singled out because its manifest listed a cargo of ''human aids,'' turns out to have been filled with bundles of used clothing bound from Italy to Bolivia. It took the inspector and a civilian crew most of the day to offload and inspect the bundles, then reload the container and send it back to the shipping yards.

''It would be very difficult to search every container without severely disrupting the flow of goods,'' Bonner says.

A glimpse of that kind of disruption came in late 1999. The nation's Western rail system slowed dramatically as it adjusted to a merger of two railroads, a booming economy and other factors.

The slowdown created havoc for weeks. Christmas items did not arrive to stores on time. Perishable goods rotted. Factories closed because needed parts were delayed.

''It was only temporary, but it created big headaches,'' says John Foertsch, the Southeast operations manager for OOCL (Orient Overseas Container Line), a major container shipper based in Hong Kong. ''It's hard to imagine the chaos that would come if delays like that became the routine.''

Technology solutions

Some look to technology as a solution. Last summer, Customs agents at busier ports began using drive-through mobile X-ray units that can scan containers as they are driven past a checkpoint, much like luggage through an airport screening station.

Sitting in the cab of such a unit on the Charleston docks, Customs Inspector Eddie Basham peers at a computer screen displaying the shadowy interiors of passing containers. ''Tires,'' he says, pointing to a stack of spirals filling one container. On the next, he notices a dark, irregular shape and sends it to the side for inspection.

Occasionally, the equipment hits immediate pay dirt. ''There's a few times I've seen people standing in the inside of a container,'' Basham says. Police took the illegal immigrants into custody.

Other screening devices are being tested and deployed. In Norfolk, Va., Virginia International Terminals is installing radiation detectors on cranes, which will screen each container as it is offloaded. As of now, Customs agents use pager-sized radiation monitors that warn of excessive radiation as they walk by rows of containers. Some estimates put the cost of equipping all major ports with large scanners at $5 billion.

Better intelligence

Some say the solution would be to inspect all U.S.-bound containers before they leave a foreign port. But the difficulty of doing that may be too great.

''No one can argue against vetting cargo before it is shipped, but you need the political will and resources to do it,'' says John Hyde, general manger for security with Maersk Sealand, one of the world's largest shipping companies. ''When you're talking about putting requirements on other sovereign nations, you can never be sure of what the reaction will be.''

Many in industry and government argue that there is no need to check each of the thousands of containers that arrive daily. They note that only 1,000 -- less than 1% -- of the 450,000 shippers who send cargo to the USA, account for nearly 60% of all containers shipped to this country. A majority of containers come from well-known and trusted companies that make regular weekly runs to U.S. ports. ''It is impossible to inspect everything, but you don't need to inspect everything,'' Bonner says. ''We are pretty good at being able to sort out what needs to be inspected.''

To that end, the Coast Guard has joined with Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and several intelligence agencies to begin sorting out information about containers before they arrive. After Sept. 11, the Coast Guard initiated the Ship Arrival Notification System, the nation's first centralized database on the movement of cargo ships.

Before this system, the Coast Guard captain in charge of security at each port only had to be notified of a shipment 24 hours before a cargo ship was due to arrive. Now that same information arrives 96 hours in advance at the Coast Guard's computer center in West Virginia. Information about the ship, its containers and crew is entered into a database that can be cross-referenced with immigration, FBI and Customs data.

The database allows many agencies to track the movement of cargo around the world. Officials hope it will help zero in on unknown shipping companies or a sudden shift in business practices or cargoes that makes no sense. ''If a ship leaves Genoa, Italy with palm oil bound for a port that normally doesn't import palm oil, you might take a closer look,'' says Capt. Tony Regalbutto, the Coast Guard's director of port security.

Flynn sees this as the first step to a system that will track individual containers as they are loaded overseas and sent to U.S. ports. ''People have compared this to a needle in a haystack problem,'' he says. ''But if you develop good intelligence about what is a threat and what isn't, you get the information down to a manageable number of targets.''

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