A Host of Problems

“Security gaps in cargo containers” was the Star-Telegram headline. So what else is new, we thought, but we decided to read the brief article anyway. Out of curiosity. It was just a single paragraph, and this is what it said:

“To stop terrorists from shipping nuclear weapons or other destructive cargo in the massive container boxes on ships, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has placed federal officers in 58 foreign seaports that account for 86 percent of U.S.-bound cargo. But those officers must rely on inspectors in the host countries to examine the high-risk cargo, and many countries do not allow U.S. inspectors to watch. That’s a weakness in the Container Security Initiative (CSI) system, says a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). What’s more, Customs and Border Protection does not regularly collect data on the qualifications of foreign inspectors or the equipment they use to detect dangerous cargo, the report said. And only a small number of cargo ships inspected in foreign ports are examined again once they reach the United States, according to the report.”

How do you like that?

We eventually uncovered the GAO report … all 78 pages of it … and decided to take a look at it. It wasn’t very encouraging, but it reinforced our suspicion that as long as our current administration isn’t taking things as seriously as they’re pretending, maybe we shouldn’t either.

Here’s a sampling of what that GAO investigation uncovered:

• In keeping with the CSI program’s risk-based approach, CBP currently does not request that the host governments examine all U.S.-bound containers, just those that CBP officers have determined to be high-risk.
• Of the more than 11 million containers entering the U.S. in 2007, the so-called “high-risk” referrals numbered less than 137,000, and some were not examined, either because they had already been loaded, or because the host government had denied the CBP request.
• At 9 CSI seaports, the CSI teams reported host government officials did not readily share information that would benefit CSI, such as knowledge about potentially suspicious cargo.
• At 6 CSI seaports, host governments prohibited the use of hand-held radiation detection devices, which CBP considers to be an important way to identify a high-risk container.
• At 3 of the CSI seaports, host customs officials lacked access to computers or nonintrusive inspection equipment that worked properly.
• Host government officials stated that they followed their own country’s acquisition procedures for the purchase of nonintrusive inspection equipment, but according to the GAO report, the CBP does not receive documentation on the effectiveness of this equipment.
• At 6 seaports, host customs administrations did not provide a sufficient number of staff to assist CSI teams, and often the host government officials were unavailable.
• In two CSI locations, scanning equipment and examination sites were placed several miles from where containers are handled.
• At one seaport the host government limited the number of containers to be examined.
• Some host governments specifically prohibit CSI members from witnessing examinations.
• At one seaport CBP officials did not routinely observe inspections, and were not always able to be present at two other CSI seaports because inspections were scheduled and conducted when CBP officials were not available.
• 15 CSI team evaluations showed that host government customs personnel have limited training in the use of nonintrusive inspection equipment.
• According to the GAO report, in spite of the questionable inspection procedures in foreign seaports, most high-risk cargo that has already been examined at a CSI seaport is generally not reexamined once it arrives at a U.S. seaport.
• CBP does not have a measure that tracks the extent to which U.S.-bound containers carrying high-risk cargo are examined at CSI seaports, despite the fact that this activity is a core element of the CSI program.
• Data about the equipment, people and processes involved in the examination system are vital for determining whether high-risk U.S.-bound containers have been properly examined or should be examined or reexamined upon arrival at a U.S. seaport. In assessing CSI performance, however, CBP lacks information about a very important aspect of this program — the overall examination systems used by the host governments to examine high-risk cargo shipped in containers as requested by the CBP.

The GAO recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection take the following actions:

1. Strengthen CBP’s process for evaluating CSI teams at overseas ports.

2. In collaboration with host government officials, improve the information gathered about the host government’s examination systems.

3. Enhance CSI performance measures to better assess overall CSI performance.

That’s all well and good, and the GAO deserves an A for effort. But as all clear-thinking people have come to realize by now, the folks overseas no longer give a hoot about our security. And furthermore, there are so many holes in this pretended security system of ours, that anyone, at any time, could slip an elephant by us if they had a mind to do so. What it comes down to is that we’ve installed foxes to guard the chicken coop. It’s all a big show. If U.S. officials were serious about protecting Americans from “terrorist threats”, instead of assigning billions of taxpayers’ dollars to make-work homeland security projects, a small fraction of those dollars would be sufficient to revitalize our own shipyards in order to build the patented container ships that we’ve been describing on these pages. With U.S. seamen crewing these vessels and operating on-board scanning equipment, there would be no need for GAO inspections and recommendations, all of which end up in the circular file anyway.

With U.S.-owned and manned vessels at sea, there would be no need to waste billions on untested systems, operated by uncaring people, in unfriendly environs, in insincere attempts to reach unattainable goals. It’s all pretense.