NEW YORK — While much of the government’s and the public’s attention is focused on the security of commercial airlines and the threat of another terrorist attack, observers of the shipping trade are concerned that there’s a major vulnerability in the nation’s security system that’s getting little attention: cargo containers.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

There are about 11 million cargo containers that enter the U.S. from abroad each year, and the government has little way of knowing whether one of the 40-foot boxes is being used to smuggle weapons or terrorists, according to speakers at a conference held in New York last month by the American Association of Exporters and Importers.

On Monday, the Department of Transportation said it would grant $92.3 million to 51 U.S. ports to improve security.

“Protecting seaports and port facilities against the threat of terrorism is imperative,” said Transportation Secretary Nor-man Mineta.

Steven Flynn, a retired Coast Guard official and current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a terrorist organization that wanted to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the U.S. could do so with relative ease by buying a small foreign company with a history of exporting goods to the U.S. and hiding the weapon inside a container used for regular shipments.

“We still continue to have literally no credible way to sort out the bad and the good among the people and goods that cross our borders,” he said. The U.S. Customs system was built for efficient importing and exporting, he added, but “we’re struggling to come up with means to make it secure.”

Richard Biter, acting director of the office of intermodal transportation at the Transportation Department acknowledged, “We need to get a better handle on what is going on right now.”

Speakers at the conference, held May 20-21 at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan, suggested one important step in improving cargo security would be to mandate electronic seals on containers that could inform authorities when a container is opened, possibly verify the contents of the container and be used as a tracking device.

Biter noted that the transportation industry currently tracks not the containers that carry goods, but the vehicles those containers are being transported on — boats, trains and trucks. That leaves open the possibility of shipments being tampered with or containers with consumer products being switched with ones that contain terrorist materiel.

“Our heads are still in the sand on this,” said Flynn, of the council, who argued that the limits of current cargo security pose a danger not just of physical attack, but are a vulnerability to the whole U.S. economy.

He said the government’s response to cargo security in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, closing the ports, amounted to “an economic blockage of our own economy,” and suggested that response couldn’t be used repeatedly without serious economic repercussions.

“Standing down our surface and maritime transportation system is an order of magnitude greater challenge,” than shutting down the airlines — as was done for several days following Sept. 11, he said.

The government needs to come up with a way of knowing when a container has been loaded with dangerous materials or tampered with so that it can respond effectively to threat reports, he said.

“When we have an incident — and we will have an incident — then we need to show that what happened is we have had a correctable breach of security, not an absence of security,” he said. “If it’s a breach of security, then we will pause the system and then turn it back on.”

Otherwise, there is a danger of public panic, he added.

Biter of the DOT suggested the government also needs to work with foreign trading partners to insure greater levels of security screening at overseas ports.

“We need to deploy detection equipment as close to the point of origin as possible,” he said. “If it’s coming into the U.S. ports, and we’re talking about a weapon of mass destruction, then it’s too late.”

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