In Denial?

During the election campaigns in 2004 there were a number of influential members of Congress criticizing the administration and the DHS, the 170,000 strong Department of Homeland Security, and reminding the public that a mere 4% to 5% of incoming containers were being scanned and/or inspected by U.S. Customs. The Democratic presidential candidate was among those who were critical of this failed security but all criticisms were denied and subsequently dismissed by the DHS. Unfortunately the public also dismissed the criticisms because the timing made it look like so much political rhetoric. Our commentary of October 22nd dealt with this matter back then, but whenever anyone faulted their established inspection systems, a cursory denial would be issued by the DHS. The occasional whining citizen had no clout against a force of 170,000.
But that was then and this is now. Here’s what REUTERS had to say on May 25th:

“Congressional investigators on Wednesday said they have found serious shortcomings in post-Sept. 11 programs aimed at stopping weapons of mass destruction from arriving at U.S. seaports. Following a 20-month investigation that took U.S. Senate and House of Representatives officials to shipping ports from Rotterdam to Singapore, officials found that only a tiny portion of the containers destined for U.S. ports were being inspected. “Only one-third of one percent of all containers” were inspected at 36 foreign ports that participate in a Container Security Initiative that the United States launched in 2002, according to a congressional aide who briefed reporters. Of cargo deemed ‘high-risk’, only 17.5 percent was inspected before leaving overseas ports, the congressional findings said. Under two programs enforced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, containers loaded onto ships bound for the United States are to be inspected before they leave overseas ports, with the cooperation of foreign governments and U.S. shipping companies. According to the Government Accountability Office, the congressional investigative arm that probed shipping security procedures, about 9 million ocean cargo containers were unloaded at U.S. seaports last year.

“Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner is scheduled to testify on Thursday before a Senate panel responsible for overseeing domestic security. The GAO found Bonner’s agency suffered from staffing shortages sometimes related to a lack of cooperation from foreign governments, as well as other problems, including workplace constraints. GAO investigators said Customs and Border Protection ‘has not established minimal technical requirements’ for inspection and radiation detection equipment used in the Container Security Initiative. GAO also found flaws in the Bush administration’s handling of another program, known as C-TPAT, in which companies are given preferential U.S. customs treatment if they adhere to security procedures. The GAO report said Customs did not do enough to ensure that the companies’ security procedures are reliable. There are more than 9,000 applicants to the program and nearly 5,000 certified members so far.

“The congressional aide said that some high-risk containers are reclassified as low-risk ‘without real vetting, without substantial validation or verification or who you are and what you do.’ The aide, who asked not to be identified, said investigators have failed to ‘physically look at the supply chain with any degree of specificity. It is a hole in the system that is not making us any safer.’”

Richard Stana of the GAO, testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, stated that both the CSI and the C-PTAT programs have shortcomings that create security gaps that terrorists could exploit.

• Under the CSI program, U.S. Customs officers have been stationed at 36 of the largest ports in other countries, where they work with local officials to identify and inspect “high-risk” containers waiting to be shipped to the U.S. The GAO found that as of September 2004, 28 percent of the high-risk containers were not inspected before they were shipped.. Of these, the GAO could not verify that all were inspected once they actually arrived at U.S. ports.
• The voluntary C-PTAT program encourages the different parties involved in the global supply chain — manufacturers, importers, shippers, trucking companies, etc. — to apply for partnership status with the government. “The first problem is that CBP awards benefits which reduce or possibly eliminate the chances of detailed inspection at the ports without verifying that members have accurately reported their security measures and that they are effective,” Stana told Senators.

In addition, even though almost 9,100 companies have applied to C-TPAT, only 4,921 have been certified and just 564 have completed the validation process. At this rate, it will take CBP years to catch up on certifications, Stana said. But Robert Bonner, commissioner of the CBP, defended his agency’s performance. He insisted that containers identified as high-risk in foreign ports that don’t get inspected there are handled by customs officers at U.S. ports. Barely one in ten applicants have been verified, the Congressional report pointed out, but Mr. Bonner is unconcerned. As for the others, “We’ve dealt with them over the years. We know they can be trusted”, he stated.

“We don’t have the high level of assurance that Mr. Bonner has,” was Mr. Stana’s response, and Michigan Senator Carl Levin, (D) put it even more bluntly when he said, “We’re putting our faith in a faulty and limited system.”

Retired USCG Commander Dr. Stephen Flynn wisely argues that the ones that are being trusted are exactly the companies terrorists are likely to target. “It’s as simple as a good payment to a truck driver to take an extra long lunch break. Access to that load, and you’re on your way.” Dr. Flynn hit the nail right on the head. So did we in our Vol. II, Art. 19 commentary entitled, “The Magic Bullet”. Here are our words in our final paragraph: “… how long do you suppose it would take for someone with hostile intentions to find out exactly which C-TPAT members are getting kid glove treatment by Customs inspectors in U.S. ports? The ‘smart-box’ system and its public announcement are an open invitation to these terrorists. Look in a mirror, if you will. You see an upstanding American citizen. Believe it or not, most of the people in the world don’t see you that way. They see you as ‘the Ugly American’. It’s time to be honest with ourselves. ‘Smart-boxes’ may turn out to be the real hoax. There are thousands upon thousands in foreign lands who, for the right price, would look the other way when these containers are being prepared for shipment to our ports. Isn’t that how 32 Chinese managed to reach the Port of Los Angeles? The old smuggler’s rhyme is recited in every language and in every port in the world, ‘There’s an extra week’s pay, if you look the other way’. We’ve allocated billions of dollars in futile attempts to provide security to this country and now we’re giving a green light and a road map to those who are trying to destroy us. Well, maybe we’re not really ugly, but we certainly are stupid.”