The Magic Bullet

The following is excerpted from the Congressional Record, and the words are those of Virginia’s Senator Robert Byrd. One of the most knowledgeable and most respected of this nation’s legislators, he was urging his fellow senators to vote against the proposed Homeland Security Bill.

“This is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation I have seen in my 50 years. I will have been in Congress 50 years come January 3rd. Never have I seen such a monstrous piece of legislation sent to this body. Our poor staffs were up most of the night studying it. They know some of the things that are in there, but they don’t know all of them. It is a sham and it is a shame …To tell the American people they are going to be safer when we pass this is a hoax. We ought to tell the people the truth. They are not going to be any safer. I was one of the first in the Senate to say we need a new Department of Homeland Security. I meant that. But I didn’t mean this particular hoax that this administration is trying to pander off to the American people, telling them this is Homeland Security.”

To be sure, this amalgamation of 22 government agencies and 170,000 employees is the most confusing blend of bureaucracy any administration has ever attempted to “pander off to the American people”. Many of the declarations, restrictions, and regulations issuing from this massive body are contradictory and irrational, and this administrative inefficiency must have been what Senator Byrd had foreseen in his harsh criticism in the Senate hearings. Let’s examine some of what has transpired in recent months.

1. Not too long ago, when a campaigning Senator Kerry accused the Bush administration of settling for a security policy that screened only 5% of the cargo coming to U.S. ports, he was taken to task by Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner. Mr. Bonner stated; “It’s terribly misleading to say you’re not inspecting 95% of the containers, and leave out the fact that for the first time since 9/11, we get information, and we do a risk assessment of every container that’s heading to the United States … The containers we identify, 100% of them are inspected using large-scale x-ray machines and radiation detection equipment. We have implemented CSI (Container Security Initiative) to be able to screen the highest risk containers before they leave the foreign port”. [See our October 22nd commentary.]

Daniel Wagner, however, publicly disputed Mr. Bonner’s words. Mr. Wagner is a financing specialist at the Asian Development Bank and revealed that only 5% of what comes to U.S. ports is inspected, and he made it perfectly clear that because an act of terrorism would adversely affect Asian manufacturers, Asians are quite serious at their end and are not playing games with security issues. But a perfect example of the ineffectiveness of the CTI, as well as the Asian watchdogs, was seen when 32 Chinese immigrants were detected on January 15th by an alert crane operator at the Port of Los Angeles. They had arrived in a container, undetected, on a ship arriving from Hong Kong. The ship’s crew claimed, as one would expect, that they were unaware of the stowaways. [See our Vol. II, Art. 6 commentary.]

Check out Mr. Bonner’s resume, if you have the time. You’ll see that he’s eminently qualified and certainly not a dummy, but he seems to be the fall guy in what Senator Byrd feels is a hoax. 22 agencies and 170,000 government employees? No one, not even Mr. Bonner, could ride that bronc.

2. It gets worse, but to Mr. Bonner’s credit, he confessed the Department’s shortcomings when he was required to submit a new set of cargo security requirements for members of a public-private trade security partnership. “The goal of C-TPAT (Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism)”, he said, “is to decrease the prospect of a terrorist weapon being concealed in a container headed for the United States”. Then he contradicted his earlier statement to Senator Kerry and admitted that, “We, as the U.S. government, can’t regulate back to the point of origin of a product.” To ensure a safer and more efficient delivery of cargo-carrying containers, Mr. Bonner announced that C-TPAT members would be required to equip containers with a proposed “smart-box” technology when it becomes available, probably later this year. At this point he said, “A seal alone only adds a marginal amount of security.” Another disconcerting admission.

First, we were assured of the reliability of inspections by vigilant overseas agents in the supply chain, then we were given assurances of tamper-proof seals. As it turned out, neither of these setups could be described even as a stopgap measure because nothing in the way of security was actually provided. Let’s take an objective look at the next magic bullet, the proposed “smart-box”. Still in the development stages, the technology in this specially equipped container is intended to detect tampering in transit, and importers using (and paying for) this technology will be assured of expedited inspections, or no inspections at all, in some cases. Expediting means speeding up and saving time, so that’s an advantage. But it’s the only advantage being offered so far. On currently held test runs, the so-called false-positive detection rate is about 5%. When the false-positive rate can be brought to below 1%, says Mr. Bonner, the product will hit the market. But since when does any kind of a system with “false-positives” provide a sense of security? How many times will false alerts disrupt security operations? And won’t security personnel soon tend to ignore these alarms? Like the boy who cried “Wolf! Wolf!” once too often … well, you remember that story.

That’s a minor drawback, though. If, indeed, the terrorist threat is real, and if, indeed, a bomb-laden container would strike a crippling blow to the U.S. economy, 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 the 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.

We at Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems, Ltd. have an axe to grind and we’re not at all embarrassed to present our case. The first few pages of this website provide simple schematics and a concise description of our patented storage, retrieval and delivery systems. The advantages of our systems as opposed to the disadvantages of conventionally-structured container yards are clearly spelled out, and they can be quickly reviewed if there’s a need to do so. Security is what we’re dealing with in this commentary, however, and because no sure barrier has been erected by Homeland Security, and because so much is at stake, we have an obligation to make this sales pitch.

• Our container yard system: The space and time created by this system allows the operation to make use of existing scanning/inspection technology with the result that every container is inspected as it is being offloaded, and prior to its being positioned in a preassigned slot. Because constraints in today’s U.S. port operations permit only random scanning/inspections, weapons, contraband, illegal immigrants, and terrorists as well, have been smuggled into places like the Port of Los Angeles. If it were not for a stroke of luck, those 32 Chinese immigrants would have landed safely last month. An unwitting crane operator, and not any security measures, stymied their efforts. When only 4% of all containers are being scanned, we must ask ourselves how many other immigrants have gained entry in uninspected containers. How many of them are terrorists? How much in the way of contraband has been introduced into our markets? How many weapons have arrived?

With our system installed in U.S. ports, every container will be inspected/scanned. No weapons, no contraband, no immigrants and no terrorists could possibly get through. No longer would we be required to rely on overseas personnel for our safety and security, especially when so many beyond our shores have shown a lack of interest. The “magic bullet” mentioned above is proven, patented and readily available. It will be installed in one-tenth of the time, in one-tenth of the space and in one-tenth (or less) of the cost of a conventionally-structured terminal. Along with guaranteed security for all, port authorities will realize higher incomes, more job opportunities will be created, and taxpayers and consumers will be relieved of financial burdens.

• Our shipboard systems: Although this website is dedicated to terminal operations, if ultimate security is ever required, it can be obtained by means of our shipboard storage and retrieval system. Our “Chronology” page makes reference to U.S. Patent Number 5,860,783, Granted on Jan.19,1999, and Entitled: CARGO CONTAINER STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL SYSTEM AND METHOD INCLUDING ON DECK CARRIAGE ASSEMBLY. This shipboard system makes it possible to retrieve, or store, any single container, regardless of its location aboard the vessel, without handling any other container. As an added advantage, the system allows for the scanning/inspection of every container while the vessel is en route to our shores. The procedure can be completed in one week’s time, and prior to arrival at our ports, every safe container will be granted clearance, and any suspect containers may very well be jettisoned. The threat to “deepsix” offenders will be enough to discourage terrorists and any others who would wish to gain illegal access into our country. [Checkmate!!]

By adopting one or both of these systems, security at our ports will be guaranteed, unambiguous, and acquired at a cost far below the amounts now being spent and allocated in state and federal budgets. We … all of us … deserve a good night’s sleep for a change.