Report: US inspects for WMD at only half of 'high-risk' seaports

Panama customs examines a container using imaging equipment and the Port of Balboa, Panama. GAO

The United States does not have any inspection teams at nearly half the foreign seaports that it considers high risk targets for the shipping of weapons of mass destruction to the U.S., says an upcoming federal report obtained by NBC News.

The Government Accountability Office also found in its report that Customs and Border Protection had not conducted a fresh assessment of risks at foreign ports since 2005, and that because of budget cuts the number of U.S. inspectors at foreign ports had fallen by half -- from 153 to 77 -- in the past five years.

“Although there have been no know incidents of cargo containers being used to transport WMD, the maritime supply chain remains vulnerable to attacks,” concluded the report, which will be published next month.

The report also noted that the CBP had failed to meet its goal of inspecting all U.S.-bound cargo at specific ports with radiation detection and electronic imaging equipment by 2012, and that the deadline had been pushed back to 2014. It achieved 100 percent scanning at only location – Port Qasim, Pakistan.

The U.S. inspects U.S.-bound cargo at 61 foreign ports that handle 80 percent of U.S.-bound cargo as part of its Containing Security Initiative, which began just after 9/11. According to the report, the U.S. has inspection capabilities at 27 of the 50 riskiest ports. Fifteen of the other high-risk ports are in countries that will not cooperate with the CSI program.

A Harvard professor who is an expert on nuclear weapons said he thinks the millions of cargo containers arriving from foreign ports offer terrorists a “Trojan horse” for a devastating attack on the U.S.

“If a nuclear weapon explodes in New York,” said Graham Allison, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s ten times more likely to be delivered by ship than by ICBM. Why? Because a missile leaves an unambiguous return address, and the certainty that (the sender) will be toast.”

The CBP declined a request from NBC News to comment on the report in advance of its official publication. In a response appended to the report, however, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, said it agreed that a new assessment of security risks at overseas ports is needed. DHS said it anticipated that its next assessment will be completed in August 2014.

In addition, according to the report, some of the cuts to inspection personnel have been offset by the ability to examine cargo containers remotely, through electronic imaging. In June, the heads of the Border Patrol and CBP told Congress that they had been able to reduce the number of officers working on the ground at CSI ports “through increased partnership with host country counterparts and advances in targeting in technology.”

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