Why Port Insecurity Starts Abroad

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Opponents of the Dubai maritime company's takeover of operations at six ports in the U.S. claimed to have strengthened their case on Monday when a Senate committee released a Coast Guard document warning that, because of intelligence gaps, it couldn't rule out that the company could be infiltrated by terrorists. The Coast Guard has since made clear that its concerns about Dubai Ports World were subsequently addressed and resolved, but Congressional Democrats, not surprisingly, remain skeptical. But lost amid the current controversy is the fact that U.S. port security actually starts overseas, long before cargo arrives at U.S. shores, and security experts warn that there are crucial gaps even at that point.

Only about 5% of the some 6 million cargo containers that come into U.S. terminals each year are actually inspected. Instead of checking every box, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has what its officials call a "multi-layered" security system to target suspicious containers that might have been tampered with by terrorists. The targeting starts at the foreign ports where U.S.-bound goods are loaded onto ships, and it depends on information provided by the shippers.

That information, or the lack thereof, is part of the problem. For instance, 24 hours before American-bound containers are loaded onto a vessel in a foreign port, the ship’s captain must send an electronic manifest of his cargo to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks it against intelligence reports to determine if any of the containers need further inspection. But the captain doesn’t actually know what’s in the containers. The manifest he sends is drawn from the bill of lading the original shipper supplies, which may not be detailed, or more importantly, accurate.

Congress has tried in the past to require the original shipper to provide additional information, such as where the container was packed with its cargo. But U.S. retailers who import goods from overseas claim that more disclosure makes such cargo an inviting target for thieves, an argument that has worked so far but doesn't satisfy critics. The problem is, "we don't know whether the manifests are accurate or not when the ships are loaded," says Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who has sponsored legislation to strengthen maritime security. "The containers are not tracked as they come overseas," Murray adds. "Somebody could divert them for a day and tamper with them. There are just numerous holes that we need to address." Until they do, critics and security experts say it may not matter who is actually managing the ports on a day-to-day basis.