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Homeland Security

Statement of Susan M. Collins

Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs

"Cargo Containers: The Next Terrorist Target?"

March, 20 2003

As we convene this morning, our nation’s threat level has once again been raised to orange, signifying a high risk of terrorist attacks on our citizens. Today, the Committee on Governmental Affairs will focus on what many experts consider one of the greatest vulnerabilities: our ports and the global cargo container system, in particular.


There are 12 million cargo containers in the worldwide inventory. These containers move back and forth among major seaports more than 200 million times each year. Every day, more than 21,000 containers arrive at U.S. seaports from foreign countries filled with consumer goods – from televisions to clothing to toys. In fact, about 90 percent of U.S. bound cargo moves by container. We must ensure that these containers carry nothing more dangerous than sneakers or sporting goods, not “dirty bombs” or even Al Qaeda terrorists. This hearing will assess the progress being made toward that goal.


Currently, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security inspects only a small percentage of cargo containers. Some are scanned with x-ray equipment; others are physically opened to verify their contents. Either way, the process is time consuming and burdensome, and historically, Customs has been able to physically screen only about two percent of these containers. Perhaps that seemed sufficient prior to September 11th, 2001, but we now realize that the stakes are much higher.


One news report last week suggested that some intelligence officials have a growing fear that Osama Bin Laden is obsessed with the idea of building a nuclear weapon and smuggling it into the United States, possibly on a container ship.


Whether the threat is nuclear, chemical, or biological – whether it comes from a terrorist network such as Al Qaeda or a terrorist state such as Iraq – cargo containers offer a frighteningly simple and anonymous way to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States. Cargo containers not only cross international jurisdictions, but also jurisdictional boundaries. They arrive by sea, by road, and by rail. Compared to the aviation industry, however, containerized cargo shipments are less regulated, less standardized, and far less secure.


For years, criminals have used cargo containers to smuggle narcotics, firearms, and people into the United States. Last year, for example, four men in New York pled guilty to charges of racketeering for their involvement in a crime syndicate that smuggled seven cargo containers packed with stowaways to West Coast ports on five separate occasions. Human trafficking is believed to be an $8 billion-a-year business. Containers have also been used to smuggle a wide array of contraband, including illegal firearms and drugs into the U.S.


Smuggling rings know how to exploit the vulnerabilities of the global container system. Based on a training manual seized in England, we know that Al Qaeda has targeted smugglers for recruitment. The Al Qaeda training manual also instructed its members to look for new terrorist recruits among those seeking political asylum and employees at borders, airports, and seaports.


Our challenge is to prevent terrorists from exploiting our global system for moving goods as a means for attacking our nation. The good news is that our government has been working to anticipate and respond to this threat. Since September 11th, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has nearly doubled the percentage of containers examined from fewer than two percent in 2001 to nearly four percent in the first quarter of fiscal year 2003.


Since most containers carry legitimate commerce, Customs officials are working to ensure that high-risk containers are targeted for inspection. Given that 96 percent of the incoming containers are not being inspected, the systems for targeting and screening cargo must be highly effective. I have questions about the system used to accomplish this task and the quality of the data upon which it relies.


In addition to increasing the number of inspections, the Department of Homeland Security has implemented new programs to enhance container security. The programs, known as the 24-hour rule, the Container Security Initiative (“CSI”), the Custom-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (“C?TPAT”), and Operation Safe Commerce, are well intentioned and designed to make us more secure. But do they?


Today we will learn how well these programs are operating. For example, we will hear testimony about Operation Safe Commerce, which began with a test shipment of a container of light bulbs from a factory in Slovakia to New Hampshire. The container was outfitted with tracking and intrusion detection equipment to test whether the widespread use of such technology was viable. Some officials were surprised that despite crossing five international borders, the antenna, nest of wires, and power supply attached to the container raised no eyebrows. [refer to picture] We will hear more about the results of that test in testimony today.


The threat of an attack using cargo containers is serious and immediate. I look forward to learning from our witnesses about the progress that has been made so far and about their ideas for implementing even better, long-term solutions for securing the global container system and reducing our vulnerability.



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