"We're sitting here in. . .a bull's-eye."
By Joe Malinconico
Newhouse News Service, New Orleans Times-Picayune
NEW YORK — By the time the Cape Charles sailed into New York Harbor in early May, the ship had been watched by American antiterrorism officers for more than five weeks.
A crane loads a cargo container onto a ship at the Port of Miami in this file photo from Jan. 2007. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
They had tracked its trip through northern Europe: from Southampton to Rotterdam to Hamburg to Le Havre and back to Southampton.
The cargo seemed harmless enough, according to the shipping records. Tea from Great Britain. Airplane parts from the Netherlands. Chemicals from Germany. Cheese from France. All part of a shipment of containers headed to Staten Island. But with fears of dangerous materials entering the nation's ports escalating after Sept. 11, 2001, American security officials say they cannot afford to take shipping records at face value.
"We're sitting here in the middle of a bull's-eye," said Kevin McCabe, Customs' chief of seaport enforcement operation for the Port of New York and New Jersey. "We have to be vigilant. What we're doing could be critical to saving people's lives."
The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., was given the rare opportunity to observe how federal officials went about inspecting the cargo containers of one ship, the Panamanian-flagged Cape Charles, which arrived at New York Container Terminal on May 2.
That inside view, along with interviews with officials and experts, shows that the security measures appear to be more exacting than what has been generally assumed, but they still fall short of what critics say needs to be done to keep the country safe.
Customs officers focused on 51 of the Cape Charles' 670 containers, designating them "high-risk" and setting them aside for special treatment. Further tests required four of the containers to be unpacked by longshoremen and hand-searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers until they were satisfied they held nothing dangerous.
The results were typical of what happens with the 450 or so cargo container ships that make more than 5,000 stops a year at terminals in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Customs officials said 5 percent to 7 percent of the containers are classified high-risk and about 9 percent of those end up hand-inspected.
The amount of cargo inspected provides fodder for both sides in the ongoing debate about maritime security.
"I'm not satisfied with the numbers," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who feels every container should be treated the way Customs now handles high-risk boxes, with more of the screening done overseas.
"We should be scanning 100 percent of all the cargo that comes into this country," he said.
But advocates say the present system strikes a realistic balance between keeping ports safe and commerce flowing.
"I don't think we need to do that, and I don't think we want to do that," said former U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, referring to Menendez's proposal. "You're playing with fire here in terms of our economy."
The computerized targeting system now in place uses an algorithm that assigns point values to each container. For example, cargo sent by a first-time shipper might draw a higher score -- and greater scrutiny -- than goods sent by a company with an established track record. Or a container with cargo from multiple parties might get a higher score than a box containing goods from a single company.
Customs officials balk at giving out details on how they rank the risks.
The New Orleans office of Customs & Border Patrol uses radiation portals to screen a select number of containers that travel to the Port of New Orleans. A spokesman for the port did not know what percentage of the containers are screened.
More than 50 ports that produce about 82 percent of America's imports participate in the program. Menendez and others are pushing for legislation that would require all cargo to go through scanning before it leaves foreign ports.
But shipping experts say scanning all cargo before it leaves foreign ports would be difficult, partly because some countries simply don't want American Customs officers regulating trade at their ports and partly because it would stall commerce.
Under overcast skies at 8:30 a.m. on May 2, three longshoremen begin moving cargo from the Cape Charles. Later that morning, Customs officers begin putting the 51 high-risk containers through tests at a canvas-enclosed building. The simplest one was the seal check -- a visual inspection of the container's door. The second test was for radiation. Most of the 51 boxes breezed through those inspections.
But when inspectors tested the sixth box from the Cape Charles, lights on the detector started flashing and the monitor showed levels of cobalt. Shipping records said the box contained insulating parts from the Netherlands.
Customs officers cut the container's seal, climbed inside and tore open the plastic packing. Their personal radiation devices started flashing as soon as they entered.
Minutes later, they climbed back out. The packages seemed legitimate, they said. The most time-consuming test is the gamma-ray imaging machine, also known as Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System.
The cargo containers are parked, one by one, at the gamma-ray device. The imaging machine's portals then slowly slide on rails down each side of the cargo container until they have covered the length of the box.
A few seconds later, images gradually appear on a computer screen monitored by a Customs officer in a booth. The computer also displays the shipping information on the container.
None of the first 13 high-risk containers off the Cape Charles that went through the imaging machine raised flags. But the Customs officer seemed puzzled by the 14th box. The 14th box has a big, dark blob in the middle. Something very dense. The officials decided to keep the container at the port for a hand inspection.
By the time all 51 containers went through the gamma-ray scanning, three more seemed suspicious enough to be set aside for physical exams.
Days later, Customs officers conduct physical exams of the suspicious cargo. After sending in a bomb dog, Customs began checking the cargo by hand, focusing on the parts that came up exceptionally dense on the VACIS machine. They found nothing.
The high-risk containers now were ready for one last test: the radiation portals at the exits. At ports throughout the country, the vast majority of cargo containers -- even those not tagged as high-risk -- go through the portals before they hit the open road. At the Port of New York and New Jersey, about 95 percent of the containers get sent through the radiation portals, Customs officials said.
The 51 high-risk containers from the Cape Charles turned up no bombs or weapons. That's been the case for every high-risk container that Customs has targeted since Sept. 11.
"We have found some things that suggest terrorists," said McCabe, who declined to give specifics for security reasons. "But if you're asking if we've found bombs or the components of a bomb, the answer is no."
Copyright 2007 New Orleans Times-Picayune
Ship cargo security falls short