Customs outlines seabound security

January 18, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — The commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service outlined here Thursday a security strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction entering the United States via ocean-going sea containers

Officials at Imperial Valley freight companies, though, said they aren't worried about that prospect.

The 5.7 million containers that enter the country each year on commercial ships are "windows of opportunity" for terrorists and "the most critical and most vulnerable component of the global system," Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said.

Citing an example from October when a suspected member of the al-Qaida terrorist group was found in an Italian port in a container bound for Canada, Bonner said "the use of an ocean-going container as a means to stage terror or transport a weapon of mass destruction into the United States is by no means farfetched."

The cargo container in which the suspected al-Qaida member was found had a bedroom, bathroom, airport maps, airport security passes and a mechanic's certification.


Los Angeles and Long Beach rank second and third as the busiest ports of entry for freight in the United States. Bonner said the ports' combined shipping activity eclipses that of the No. 1 port for inbound containers, New York.

However, representatives of the area's freight companies whose goods move in and out of Long Beach and through the Imperial Valley every day said security issues aren't foremost in their minds.

"We do not worry about that," said Brian Yoo, vice president of Calinex Transport Inc. in Long Beach.

All of his company's business comes in and out of Long Beach, he said, an estimated daily total of 100 containers, 20 of which generally pass through Imperial Valley on their way to Mexico. Freight heading into Mexico contains raw materials from ports in East Asia in countries such as China and Taiwan and those coming back contain finished electronic products, he said.

Jose Bayardl, operations manager for Conex Freight Systems Inc. in Calexico, said he isn't worried, either.

"All the containers that arrive are inbound and continuing on to Mexico so they are sealed and never opened in the United States unless U.S. Customs agents opened them," he said.

Moreover, he said, only about 20 percent of his business is inbound from Long Beach to Mexico. Those containers transport raw materials for putting together computers or television sets, he said. The rest of his business consists of transporting containers with finished electronic products or crops such as cotton from Mexicali to Long Beach for redistribution in Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Bonner described a catastrophic scenario that could result if terrorists got hold of shipping containers. Not only could an explosion at a major port cause thousands of deaths, it could close down the global shipping industry in the way that airplanes were grounded after Sept. 11. Many goods consumers had come to count on wouldn't make it on time to store shelves.

"The stakes are high and the system is vulnerable," Bonner said.

He suggested concentrating on the choke points of sea trade, the "mega-ports" worldwide such as Hong Kong and Shanghai where most U.S.-bound shipments originate, and pre-screening seabound containers before they are shipped. He also suggested the use of radiation, X-ray and gamma-ray machines to pre-screen high risk containers and developing technological means of ensuring that containers remain sealed throughout their journey.

But his plan still needs refining, he said. Many of the details such as who would fund the increased security and who would do the screening abroad need to be worked out.

Bonner said he envisions small multi-national teams working together to promote container safety.

"It's not necessarily going to be an easy task, but the size and scope truly pales in comparison with what's at stake" Bonner said. He said what is at stake is "no less than the global economy."

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