Inherent Insecurity at U.S. Ports

Sep 7, 2012
By Nathan Donohue
A recent article by Sarah Weiner of the Project on Nuclear Issues discussed the July security breach at the U.S. Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. The article not only highlights the recent security failure but calls attention to almost a decade of consistent and repeated security failures at sensitive U.S. facilities. These facilities are responsible for guarding dangerous radiological material, including weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium suitable for use in a nuclear weapon. While these failures raise important concerns for U.S. national security – ones which the U.S. must actively work to resolve – there remains a more dangerous and pressing national security threat, the threat posed by the insecurity of U.S. ports. As opposed to the theft of sensitive nuclear or radiological material from a secure facility, it is far more plausible that a terrorist organization would import this material from abroad, abusing the gaping holes in American port security.
In 2002, Jay Etta Z. Hecker, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified before the Subcommittee on National Security that U.S. ports present a clear danger to U.S. national security. Hecker highlighted that security at U.S. ports has been repeatedly revealed to be porous, allowing drugs and illegal aliens to be routinely smuggled into this country “hidden among otherwise legitimate cargoes on large commercial ships.” Furthermore, these “same pathways are available for exploitation by a terrorist organization or any nation or person wishing to attack us surreptitiously.” In fact, this was later discovered to be exactly the basis of one of Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s plans to attack America.
Hecker noted that this problem was compounded by the extremely limited capacity for the U.S. Customs Service to detect illegal nuclear or radiological material at U.S. ports. Specifically, Hecker highlighted how radiation detection was focused on screening only a small portion of total cargo as it enters U.S. ports. According to Customs, such inspections were not carried out with large detection aids such as portal monitors or Vehicle and Container Inspection Systems (VACIS), both of which have the ability to scan the contents of large incoming containers. Instead, Customs personnel relied on roughly 4,200 “handheld radiation pagers that have a limited range and capability.” These limited security measures took place in the context of a U.S. shipping industry in which roughly 5,400 total ships arrived annually into the nation’s 300 ports to distribute a cumulative cargo of more than six million containers.
With the recognition of this glaring hole in American national security, the U.S. government actively sought to implement new security measures to reduce this risk. In 2006, Congress passed the SAFE Port Act which called for a pilot program to test the feasibility of 100% percent scanning of all incoming cargo. To that end, DHS and DOE developed the Secure Freight Initiative (SFI), which allocated $40 million annually for three years to monitor six international test ports that shipped cargo to the United States. However, this program met with difficulties and proved neither effective nor feasible.
The GAO reported that the scanning operations completed at these SFI participating ports encountered a number of challenges. While the low volume ports were able to scan a majority of U.S. bound cargo, at the higher volume ports such as Hong Kong scans were only able to be completed on roughly 5% of the U.S.-bound cargo containers. In addition, the program proved expensive for the limited gains that were achieved. Specifically, as Kevin McAleenanAssistant Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), testified earlier this year to the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, if you scale the program up, the costs associated with the “2100 lanes at the 700 ports globally that ship directly to the United States,” could be as high as $16 billion dollars and would be quite cost-prohibitive. These limited gains and large costs associated with SFI were in addition to problems such as equipment malfunction, logistical difficulties, and poor-quality scan images. As it stands Pakistan’s Port of Qasim remains the only facility still involved in the program.
In 2007 Congress passed the Sept. 11 Commission Law, setting a July 1, 2012 deadline for all incoming cargo to the United States to be subject to radiation detection and nonintrusive imaging technology. As of 2001, the CBP in coordination with the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) has reportedly fielded “1,388 radiation portal monitors at U.S. ports of entry to detect the presence of radiation in cargo containers.” Since that time, these systems have reportedly examined more than 679 million cargo containers and vehicles for illicit radiological material with zero instances of illicit transport.
However, implementation has not even come close to achieving the goal of 100%. Although radiation detection has increased since 2001, since 2007 the amount of cargo that is regularly scanned by X-ray or gamma-ray machines has remained at approximately only 4%. For FY 2012, this means that only 473,380 out of 11.5 million containers which arrived that year in the United States were subject to security scanning. According to a GAO report, an effort was made to deploy a more-advanced and more expensive radiation monitor. However, after spending more than $200 million and being unable to justify the costs for the updated program, the DHS ended the program in July 2011.
Understandably, this “100%” mandate is most likely an unachievable goal. Screening 100% of incoming cargo would necessarily cause large shipping delays and create unsustainable economic losses; particularly at a time when the government is doing everything it can to increase national income and U.S. trade. Secretary Napolitano has warned of the challenges posed by the 100% screening mandate since 2009. Furthermore, acknowledging the inability of DHS to meet the 100% requirement specified in the 2007 Sept. 11 Commission law, Secretary Napolitano granted a two-year waiver for compliance.
However, a two-year waiver may do little to resolve the issue, if as Secretary Napolitano asserts, the mandate was neither “practicable” nor “affordable.” Yet, while achieving increased security through programs such as SFI and the application of port scanning at the roughly 700 worldwide ports seems like an unfeasible and insurmountable task, it may not be the only way of dramatically increasing U.S. security.
Container scanning is not the only activity that the CBP has investigated to safeguard against the illicit movement of dangerous materials. According to McAleenan, CBP engages in a layered approach to security, including the Container Security Initiative (CSI). This involves bilateral agreements with foreign governments to “place U.S. Customs personnel at key foreign seaports where, based on U.S. and foreign data, they will work with their foreign counterparts to target and inspect high-risk containers bound for the United States.” As the former CBP acting Commissioner Jayson Ahern has noted, “It’s not necessarily a good use of resources to spend time and effort on ships that pose no risk.” Working with trusted partners, the goal of CSI is to facilitate early detection and examination of containers that are considered high-risk, as well as to develop criteria to enable customs inspectors to better target high-risk containers suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction. Accordingly, without 100% scanning, CBP must rely very heavily on these types of targeting systems, as Director Caldwell notes.
However, as Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) has stated, the selective approach “will not prevent all potential attacks inside the U.S., as it is not comprehensive and is subject to human error and weaknesses in our defense systems.” To that end, one avenue for improvement which could be considered is adopting a more efficient/economical approach to port scanning. DHS officials have reportedly stated that roughly 80% of cargo shipped to the U.S. comes from 58 ports. If the average cost per port to implement SFI is approximately $23 million, then by reducing SFI coverage from 700 ports to 58 ports, U.S. security initiatives could feasibly be extended to 80% of all inbound cargo to the United States for a cost of roughly $1.3 billion, as opposed to trying to achieve 100% security for approximately $20 billion. In turn, such a policy would allow the U.S. to focus domestic security initiatives specifically on the 20% of inbound cargo which lies outside this program.
However, there is still the question of efficiency at high volume ports as well as the need to acquire foreign government buy-in. Secretary Napolitano has testified the U.S. lacks agreements with some foreign countries on the right to X-ray cargoes overseas. At the same time, there is already an established path for initiating a dialogue in these 58 ports which already partner with the U.S. on port security through participation in CSI.
Regardless, some new action must be explored.
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the U.S., the government has actively worked to strengthen domestic security and reduce the number of potential pathways for a terrorist attack. The introduction of these pilot programs and the addition of portal monitors is assuredly an important step. However, efforts to strengthen U.S. port security have achieved relatively little in terms of scanning inbound cargo for dangerous material. The scanning of 4% of the nearly 11.5 million containers which arrived in the U.S. in FY 2012 is hardly a secure defense against a determined terrorist threat. And with customs officials reportedly “all but given up on the goal,” of achieving the 100% mandate, there needs to be a new mandate for U.S. security—one which acknowledges the present difficulties and, in contrast to pursuing unachievable objectives, lays out a feasible and pragmatic approach to increasing American security. We may never be able to build an impenetrable defense where our port security is concerned, but at the same time the successful importation of any nuclear or radiological material by a terrorist organization is an unacceptable possibility and we can most certainly develop a defense which is better than 4%.

Nathan Donohue is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues.  The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.