WASHINGTON — U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner unveiled an ambitious plan on Thursday, which he wants launched within two months, that would have cargo containers scrutinized by foreign customs services before being shipped to the U.S.

The anti-terrorism blueprint put forth by Robert Bonner, dubbed the Container Security Initiative, would focus on the 10 foreign ports from which half of all cargo is shipped to the U.S., with the balance being phased in. The ports of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore are the three busiest processing U.S.-bound goods and are key embarkation points for apparel and textile shipments.

Bonner’s plan is apart from the post-Sept. 11 strategy by Customs, which, as reported, will require importers to undertake security reviews from factories to the docks where containers are loaded. The commissioner said guidelines governing this program are expected to be released within a month.

The U.S. Customs service is moving quickly to overhaul cargo security internationally because of dire global-economic consequences that could be wrought with a terrorist attack against even a single cargo container, said Bonner, speaking to a group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington international trade think tank.

Across the world, “the shipping of containers would stop cold for a period of time. This is not a lesson we want to learn,” Bonner said. “The stakes are high and the system is vulnerable.”

Bonner is proposing a complete overhaul of how customs services around the world operate. Instead of just monitoring incoming cargo, ports would scrutinize outgoing cargo to prevent a weapon of mass destruction from being detonated upon arrival in the U.S., he said.

As is already done with incoming cargo, ports would use various criteria to inspect at-risk outgoing containers, which could then be x-rayed using existing equipment at these ports.

Bonner proposed containers be electronically sealed using existing technology so as to alert officials of tampering. In addition, he said devices exist that could be used inside containers as early warning signals if electronic seals fail.

“Despite the daunting size and scope of the container shipping industry, I believe this is a very feasible initiative and I believe we can make it work,” Bonner told the audience.

He acknowledged difficulties ahead, like convincing foreign governments to participate. Bonner also didn’t rule out deploying U.S. Customs officers to foreign ports.

Hubert Wiesenmaier, executive director, American Import Shippers Association, Inc., which arranges cargo needs for many major U.S. apparel and textile importers, said Bonner’s initiative makes sense. In addition to increasing security, “it would cut down on inspection times and delays at the port of entry,” Wiesenmaier said.

However, he questioned how quickly the U.S. will secure cargo leaving smaller overseas ports and whether these ports, like Latin America, have the money to invest in new technology.

“If I were a terrorist, I would avoid those 10 ports,” Wiesenmaier said.

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