Lawmakers, DHS Weigh How to Secure Ports Most Vulnerable to WMDs

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
See more stories about...
Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 17, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Law­makers are work­ing with the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment to de­term­ine wheth­er it is feas­ible to es­tab­lish a U.S. pres­ence at the for­eign ports it con­siders most vul­ner­able to the smug­gling of il­li­cit weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port the non­par­tis­an Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice re­leased last month, the DHS Con­tain­er Se­cur­ity Ini­ti­at­ive does not have a pres­ence “at about half” of the ports U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion con­siders “high risk.” Mean­while, “about one fifth” of the ports where the con­tain­er pro­gram does have a pres­ence are con­sidered “lower risk loc­a­tions,” the re­port says.

This does not mean that high-risk con­tain­ers are not in­spec­ted be­fore they are un­loaded at U.S. ports, ac­cord­ing to an aide to the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee, which re­ques­ted the re­port. DHS of­fi­cials track such con­tain­ers elec­tron­ic­ally and or­der in­spec­tions upon ar­rival, said the Sen­ate staffer, who was not au­thor­ized to dis­cuss the is­sue and asked to not be named.

Still, it would be prefer­able to es­tab­lish a U.S. pres­ence at the high­er-risk ports so that more of the ris­ki­er con­tain­ers could be checked be­fore set­ting sail, ac­cord­ing to the aide.

“A dirty bomb go­ing off in the port of Long Beach is bet­ter than it go­ing off in down­town Los Angeles but it’s still pretty bad,” the staffer said. “If we can find it [at a for­eign port] we’re much bet­ter off.”

Shift­ing pro­gram re­sources from one port to an­oth­er is not ne­ces­sar­ily easy, however, the GAO re­port says. Ne­go­ti­ations are not al­ways suc­cess­ful with po­ten­tial host coun­tries where high­er-risk ports are loc­ated. In ad­di­tion, re­mov­ing DHS per­son­nel from lower-risk ports could neg­at­ively im­pact U.S. re­la­tions with cur­rent host coun­tries.

Start­ing up the con­tain­er-se­cur­ity pro­gram in new ports is also ex­pens­ive, and par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult “in an era of con­strained budgets,” the Sen­ate aide said. The com­mit­tee cur­rently is work­ing with DHS of­fi­cials to study the is­sue fur­ther and de­term­ine what, if any, prac­tic­al steps the de­part­ment can take to­ward pri­or­it­iz­ing the se­cur­ity of high­er-risk ports, ac­cord­ing to the staffer.

The aide said it was not yet clear wheth­er the com­mit­tee would take any fur­ther ac­tions, such as con­duct­ing over­sight hear­ings on the is­sue or ad­dress­ing it through le­gis­la­tion.

One way to ad­dress the is­sue would be to move back to the United States DHS of­fi­cials sta­tioned at for­eign ports who are primar­ily re­spons­ible for “tar­get­ing,” a pro­cess by which the of­fi­cials re­view com­puter as­sess­ments of which ship­ping con­tain­ers at a port are po­ten­tially high risk and de­term­ine which con­tain­ers re­quire manu­al in­spec­tion. Much of this tar­get­ing work can be done re­motely, the staffer said, par­tic­u­larly for ports where DHS of­fi­cials have a well-es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ship with the host coun­try and are con­fid­ent of its abil­ity to prop­erly con­duct the manu­al in­spec­tions.

Sta­tion­ing more DHS of­fi­cials who do mostly tar­get­ing work at home in the United States could save the pro­gram money, ac­cord­ing to aide, who es­tim­ated that it could cost three times as much to sta­tion such of­fi­cials abroad, be­cause of the price of lodging, trans­port­a­tion and cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ments. These sav­ings could free up enough funds to al­low the pro­gram to ex­pand in­to new, high­er-risk ports.

Such a move has its draw­backs, however. In ad­di­tion to po­ten­tially an­ger­ing host coun­tries where the U.S. pres­ence would be pared down, the ap­proach could be seen as con­trary to a strategy the de­part­ment has em­braced since the failed bomb­ing of a com­mer­cial air­line flight bound for De­troit in 2009. After the Christ­mas Day in­cid­ent, in which the per­pet­rat­or was not ap­pre­hen­ded un­til he reached U.S. soil, “DHS re­com­mit­ted to this idea of hav­ing people over­seas where they can fa­cil­it­ate in­spec­tions,” the Sen­ate aide said.

Ac­cord­ing to the GAO re­port, there also could be leg­al obstacles.

“For ex­ample, ac­cord­ing to [U.S. Cus­toms] and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in one coun­try, a na­tion­al law pre­cludes the trans­mis­sion of elec­tron­ic scanned im­ages oth­er than to host gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials,” the re­port says. “As a res­ult, [DHS] of­fi­cials must be present at each [Con­tain­er Se­cur­ity Ini­ti­at­ive] port in that coun­try to view the scanned im­ages.”

The GAO re­port re­com­mends that the de­part­ment peri­od­ic­ally as­sess the risks from all for­eign ports that ship to the United States in or­der to “in­form any fu­ture ex­pan­sion of [the con­tain­er-se­cur­ity pro­gram] to ad­di­tion­al loc­a­tions and … de­term­ine wheth­er changes need to be made” at ports already par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­gram.

The de­part­ment in a Sept. 4 let­ter con­curred with this re­com­mend­a­tion, say­ing that it would for­mu­late a pro­cess for con­duct­ing such as­sess­ments. DHS of­fi­cials ex­pect to com­plete the first as­sess­ment by Au­gust 2014 and to de­cide on any changes to the con­tain­er-se­cur­ity pro­gram by Decem­ber 2014, ac­cord­ing to the let­ter.

What We're Following See More »
NO BATTLE OVER SEATTLE
SCOTUS Won’t Hear Appeal of Minimum-Wage Law
33 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a sweeping constitutional challenge to Seattle’s minimum wage law, in what could have been a test case for future legal attacks on similar measures across the country. In a one-line order, the justices declined to hear a case by the International Franchise Association and a group of Seattle franchisees, which had said in court papers that the city’s gradual wage increase to $15 discriminates against them in a way that violates the Constitution’s commerce clause."

Source:
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Sanders Looks to Right the Ship in Indiana
35 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Hillary Clinton may have the Democratic nomination sewn up, but Bernie Sanders apparently isn't buying it. Buoyed by a poll showing them in a "virtual tie," Sanders is "holding three rallies on the final day before the state primary and hoping to pull off a win after a tough week of election losses and campaign layoffs." 

Source:
CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION IN JUNE
DC to Release Draft Constitution as Part of Statehood Push
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"The New Columbia Statehood Commission—composed of five District leaders including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C.'s congressional delegation—voted today to publicly release a draft of a new constitution for an eventual state next Friday, at the Lincoln Cottage." It's the first step in a statehood push this year that will include a constitutional convention in June and a referendum in November.

Source:
ALZHEIMER’S OUTCRY
Will Ferrell Bails on Reagan Movie
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

Amid outcry by President Reagan's children, actor Will Ferrell has pulled out of a movie that makes light of Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. A spokesperson for Ferrell said, “The ‘Reagan’ script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project."

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Many Surveillance Requests Did the U.S. Spy Court Reject Last Year?
1 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Zero, out of 1,457 requests by the National Security Agency and the FBI.

Source:
×