By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 12/18/2003 6:55:36 PM ET 2003-12-18T23:55:36

The main tool used by U.S. port inspectors to identify cargo containers at high risk for terrorist use has not been tested to validate its accuracy, a General Accounting Office official told a congressional panel Tuesday during a closed-door session on port security.  Further, personnel trained to use the computerized system haven’t been tested or certified on the system’s use, “so there is no assurance that they have the necessary skills” to adequately operate the system, the GAO official said. 

Those are among the findings of a preliminary GAO report presented by Richard Stana, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the GAO, during a congressional field hearing held Tuesday in Camden, N.J.  The report examined the screening and security processes used by the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security to inspect oceangoing cargo containers arriving at U.S. ports.  The hearing of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee was largely closed to the media due to the sensitive nature of the topics discussed.

However, the publicly released GAO findings provide a clear picture of the security gaps still plaguing U.S. ports of entry.

Although noting that CBP had made progress on the security issue, “unfortunately, the subcommittee and GAO have identified serious weaknesses,” in the sea cargo inspection system, said subcommittee Chairman James Greenwood, R-Pa. “These weaknesses are not insurmountable, but unless they are dealt with I cannot feel confident in (CBP’s) ability to interdict terrorist smuggling of weapons in oceangoing containers.”

Cargo container security has been a hot-button issue in Congress for more than two years.  The problem is one of numbers:  Some 16 million oceangoing cargo containers enter the United States each year.  The CBP has the resources to inspect only a fraction of those.  

Terrorism experts, both private and governmental, maintain that these cargo containers are extremely vulnerable to some form of terrorist action, such as the smuggling of a weapon of mass destruction.  Beyond the loss of life and physical damage such an attack might cause, there’s the economic loss, too. In a 2002 simulation of a terrorist attack at a U.S. port involving cargo containers, every seaport in the country was shut down, resulting in a loss of $58 billion to the U.S. economy.

To make the best use of scarce resources, the CBP uses the Automated Targeting System (ATS) as the “premier tool” to help ferret out high-risk containers, according to Charles Bartoldus, director of CBP’s National Targeting Center.

But ATS, which is a computerized system, began life as an anti-narcotics system used by the old U.S. Customs Service to help ferret out possible drug smuggling.  In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that system was forced into service as an anti-terrorist weapon.  And in that capacity it has struggled, the GAO report says.

The ATS makes its decisions on which containers are at most risk primarily by analyzing the data that comes from inventory sheets called manifests sent electronically by incoming ships.  But the GAO found that terrorism experts, members of the international trade community and CBP inspectors themselves “characterized the ship’s manifest as one of the least reliable or useful types of information for targeting purposes.” 

Beyond the unreliable data, the GAO found that shippers can “revise” the manifests up to 60 days after the cargo has arrived at a U.S. port.  CBP officials said that about 33 percent of these revised manifests would have resulted in the containers’ being targeted by ATS for inspection.  “But by the time these revisions were received,” the GAO report says, “it is possible that the cargo container may have left port.”

No way to know
And in fact, CBP has no real way of knowing if ATS is even doing an adequate job with the data it does have. 

“CBP has not attempted to test and validate ATS through simulated events,” the GAO report says.   Without that testing, “CBP will not know whether ATS is a statistically valid model and the extent to which it can identify high-risk containers with reasonable assurance,” the report says.

Ironically, only two known instances of simulated tests have taken place, the report says, and both of those were done by ABC News, when, in two separate years, the news organization simulated the smuggling of highly enriched uranium into the United States.  While in both instances ATS targeted the container carrying the mocked-up device used by ABC News (which contained depleted uranium in a sealed lead-lined pipe), it did not detect any anomaly when an X-ray-type device was used, and therefore the suspect container was never opened.

In an effort to maximize the use of ATS, the CBP developed a two-week national training program for inspectors, called “targeters,” to help them make better use of the system.  More than 400 targeters have completed that national training; however, CBP has “no mechanism to test or certify their competence,” the GAO says.  “These targeters play a crucial role because they are responsible for making informed decisions about which cargo containers will be inspected and which containers will be released,” the report says.  Instituting a certification course would provide another benefit, the GAO says:  “It would lessen the likelihood that those who did not do well in class are placed in these important positions.”

Another brick in the wall
CBP officials are quick to acknowledge that security doesn’t start and stop with a single system.

“An adversary may circumvent any single defense, so CBP does not rely on any one enforcement strategy, facilitation program, inspection process, or technology,” said Bartoldus, CBP’s National Targeting Center director. 

Instead, CBP follows what it calls a system of “layered” defense, or several technologies that all work together at some level.  This layered defense concept is one that the Department of Homeland Security has adopted throughout various sectors, like airline security, to ensure that the success or failure of terrorist deterrence doesn’t rest in a single system.

Besides the ATS, Bartoldus, in written testimony to Green’s subcommittee, also noted:

Bartoldus also defended ATS, saying that it’s a “flexible” system that CBP “works constantly to enhance and refine,” such as by making sure intelligence data also is input and available for help in making high-risk analysis. 

As for ATS being subject to faulty decision-making due to faulty data input, particularly from the suspect manifest information, Bartoldus said, “It should be noted that the ATS can detect anomalies in both accurate and inaccurate data.”

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