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America’s ports still vulnerable to attack

America's ports are still among the most  vulnerable to terrorist attack.  NBC's Fred Francis reports on efforts to improve inspections of the eight million containers that enter the U.S. each year.

“There are so many ‘What-ifs,’ it's unnerving.”

That from a federal agent, worried about the nearly eight million containers annually coming in to United States ports. It's how China ships to Wal-Mart and how wine comes from Italy.

In New York harbor Tuesday, so-called high-risk containers from Turkey drew six layers of inspection, including dogs, radiation scanners and X-rays.

“Most of the people that work in this port saw those buildings fall down first hand.  We watched the attack.  We know what they're capable of," says Kevin McCabe of U.S. Customs.

Containers are the backbone of American commerce and the security concern around them is no secret — stop them and the economy begins to crumble.

Of those nearly eight million containers, only about six percent get close inspection.  That’s a low number, say terrorism experts, who warn that this is where the United States is most vulnerable — and it may be the easiest fix.

Experts agree, increasing inspection to ten percent would create a quantum leap in protection and would be relatively inexpensive, costing a few hundred million dollars.

“I'm afraid it's just a question of when, not if, terrorists will exploit maritime containers to do harm in the United States. There's no question the system is open and vulnerable," says Steven Flynn, an expert on ports who sits on the Council of Foreign Relations.

Flynn was in Hong Kong Tuesday, examining a safer system.

“One thing that is actually being done here in Hong Kong, as a pilot, is to scan every container that comes on a terminal that would end up on a ship bound for the United States," he says.

That's just part of the Homeland security plan.  The other is operational, but understaffed — putting agents in places like Rotterdam, Germany to inspect more containers. Only 100 agents are now in two dozen overseas ports.

How do you determine a suspect container? Tuesday, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge showed off the National Targeting Center for the first time.  It’s there that a container's origin and contents are analyzed.

“This is a state of the art hub, where we can pinpoint all potentially high-risk cargo," said Ridge.

That would enable more effective inspections overseas and at home — making America safer, right now.