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

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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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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.

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