PORTS OPEN TO TERROR: JUST TWO PERCENT OF THE SIX MILLION CARGO CONTAINERS SHIPPED TO THE U.S. ARE INSPECTED - "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY, MARCH 24
Sept. 11 or not, U.S. Customs can still inspect just two percent of the six million cargo containers entering the U.S. annually, making seaports and the final destinations of the containers all across America vulnerable to terror. Steve Kroft's report, in which the U.S. Customs commissioner and other officials admit the danger, will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, March 24 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
"The system is vulnerable," says Robert Bonner, Commissioner of Customs. "I mean the movement and the potential for concealing a terrorist weapon inside a cargo container." But Bonner is confident that the two percent of containers inspected are the right ones. "We're pretty good at determining those containers that might pose a risk [in which] a terrorist or a terrorist weapon might be smuggled," he says.
Bonner admits there has been some "specific tactical intelligence" indicating that threatening materials or persons have been concealed in containers. "I'm happy to say that it proved to be a false alarm," he tells Kroft.
The possibility of containers being used to smuggle weapons or terrorists was made clear last October, when Italian authorities discovered a suspected terrorist trying to smuggle himself from Egypt to Canada in a cargo container. The incident is still under investigation.
The vulnerability is no secret, says Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who has studied port security as a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Criminals have been operating in seaports for a long time," says Flynn. "The bad guys know how open the system is. It's physically impossible to check every container without essentially stopping global commerce."
While billions of dollars are being spent for security at airports and border crossings, seaports, according to Flynn, "are the only part of an international boundary that the federal government invests no money in terms of security."
Some new technologies are in use, such as radiation detectors to search for nuclear material and VACIS machines that see through a container's steel walls. The Seaport Security Act, providing $750 million for improvements, is making its way through Congress. But Flynn believes the expensive proposition of tagging, tracking and tamper-proofing every container as it moves across the world is the only real and cost-efficient solution. "I think it's imminently doable, particularly in light of the costs...if the terrorists do, in fact, target the system," he tells Kroft. "That cost is shutting down global commerce - now that's a heavy cost."