June 12, 2003
U.S. Widens Checks at Foreign Ports
By PHILIP SHENON
WASHINGTON, June 11 — The Bush administration has decided to place teams of American inspectors at major seaports in Muslim nations and other smaller, strategically located foreign ports to prevent terrorists from using cargo containers to smuggle chemical, biological or nuclear weapons into the United States, senior administration officials said.
The inspectors, they said, will be provided with radiation monitors, chemical detectors and other equipment to inspect "high risk" metal cargo containers before they are placed on ships bound for the United States.
The move is the second phase in a government program begun shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to station American customs inspectors overseas to work side by side with their foreign counterparts in searching for unconventional weapons. The first phase focused on 20 large container ports in Europe and Asia, none of them in countries with predominantly Muslim populations.
Officials said the Department of Homeland Security planned to place teams of inspectors that would remain indefinitely in Dubai, the Persian Gulf emirate that is a crucial transhipment point for containerized cargo in the Arab world; Malaysia; Turkey and other Muslim nations. Al Qaeda is believed to have a sizable presence in both Dubai and Malaysia.
Intelligence agencies report that Al Qaeda has repeatedly used cargo ships to move conventional weapons and explosives, including the explosives used in the 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa.
Human cargo is also a concern. In October 2001, only weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the authorities in an Italian seaport discovered an Egyptian man suspected of Qaeda membership hiding in a shipping container bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia; airport maps and security passes were also found in the container, which he had outfitted with a bed and bathroom. The man disappeared while on bail.
Robert C. Bonner, the commissioner of customs and border protection in the Homeland Security Department, said the expansion of the program reflected a continuing concern that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups would try to place chemical, biological or nuclear weapons into some of the more than six million containers that arrive in the United States from overseas each year.
"I'm not prophesying anything," Mr. Bonner said in an interview. "But I do have concern that we need to have this security system in place as fast as we possibly can." He said "the system of containerized shipping was vulnerable to terrorist exploitation."
"And you don't have to take my word for it," he added. "Every national security expert I've heard has come to the same conclusion."
The issue of cargo security has become increasingly contentious on Capitol Hill. Many prominent lawmakers from coastal states have accused the administration of failing to provide the money to safeguard ports from terrorist attacks and to prevent terrorists from using cargo ships to transport weapons.
Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, who will announce many of the details of the expanded inspection program in a visit Thursday to Port Elizabeth, N.J., said that "identifying and dealing with high-risk containers at the earliest possible point protects the entire international supply chain and all of the world's major seaports."
He said the posting of customs inspectors abroad, a 17-month-old program known as the Container Security Initiative, had "emerged as a formidable tool for protecting us from the threat of terrorism."
In the first phrase of the program, the Customs Service, which has since been merged into the Homeland Security Department, opened negotiations with foreign governments representing the world's 20 largest cargo ports, as measured by shipments to the United States, to permit American inspectors to be stationed permanently in those ports.
Administration officials said teams of American inspectors would be at work at almost all of those large ports — a list that includes Antwerp, Genoa, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo and Yokohama — by the end of the year.
Mr. Ridge signed an agreement today with the prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is visiting Washington, to allow American inspectors to work the giant Thai port of Laem Chabang, which is No. 20 on the list.
But while those 20 foreign ports represent almost two-thirds of the containerized cargo bound for the United States, officials said there was mounting worry that Al Qaeda might try to make use of cargo containers passing through other, smaller ports, especially in Muslim nations where the terrorist group has a strong following.
In the new phase of the program, Mr. Bonner said, the Bush administration would place teams in an additional 20 to 25 foreign seaports, with the ports to be chosen on the basis of both cargo volume and their strategic location in nations or regions where terrorism is believed to be a special threat.
"We will be expanding to important parts of the Islamic world," he said. "We will be looking more strategically."
Administration officials said that the Malaysian government had already agreed to join the program, and that negotiations would begin soon in earnest with both Dubai and Turkey, which are also expected to sign on quickly.
The Department of Homeland Security has already placed 130 inspectors overseas as part of the first phase of the program, with another 170 in training to join them. Department officials said more than $100 million had already been committed to setting up the program.
Mr. Bonner said foreign governments were eager to allow the American inspectors into their ports, if only because it meant that cargo shipped from their ports would face no special delays for inspection when it arrived in the United States. Governments that refuse to join the program would risk having their cargo shipments held up on arrival in this country.
Foreign governments that agree to join the program are required to provide the American inspectors with high-level detection equipment, including radiation monitors that would be used to detect nuclear devices or the components of radioactive weapons.
Mr. Bonner said that while the United States had no intention of buying detection equipment for use in foreign seaports, the administration had asked the World Bank to consider how to help foreign governments raise the money for it.
Under the program, the American teams are expected to carry out inspections of a small sample of cargo containers that raise suspicion — because their shippers are unknown, because their contents are in question or for some other reason. Each team is expected to have about five members.
At the news conference on Thursday, Mr. Ridge is also expected to announce the distribution of $170 million in federal grants to strengthen port security around the country, most of it directed to state and local governments, and $30 million for research and development on cargo security.