Lawmakers, DHS Weigh How to Secure Ports Most Vulnerable to WMDs

Homeland Security lacks a presence in about half of the ports considered high risk.

Lawmakers are working with the Homeland Security Department to determine whether it is feasible to establish a U.S. presence at the foreign ports it considers most vulnerable to the smuggling of illicit weapons of mass destruction.

According to a report the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office released last month, the DHS Container Security Initiative does not have a presence "at about half" of the ports U.S. Customs and Border Protection considers "high risk." Meanwhile, "about one fifth" of the ports where the container program does have a presence are considered "lower risk locations," the report says.

This does not mean that high-risk containers are not inspected before they are unloaded at U.S. ports, according to an aide to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which requested the report. DHS officials track such containers electronically and order inspections upon arrival, said the Senate staffer, who was not authorized to discuss the issue and asked to not be named.

Still, it would be preferable to establish a U.S. presence at the higher-risk ports so that more of the riskier containers could be checked before setting sail, according to the aide.

"A dirty bomb going off in the port of Long Beach is better than it going off in downtown Los Angeles but it's still pretty bad," the staffer said. "If we can find it [at a foreign port] we're much better off."

Shifting program resources from one port to another is not necessarily easy, however, the GAO report says. Negotiations are not always successful with potential host countries where higher-risk ports are located. In addition, removing DHS personnel from lower-risk ports could negatively impact U.S. relations with current host countries.

Starting up the container-security program in new ports is also expensive, and particularly difficult "in an era of constrained budgets," the Senate aide said. The committee currently is working with DHS officials to study the issue further and determine what, if any, practical steps the department can take toward prioritizing the security of higher-risk ports, according to the staffer.

The aide said it was not yet clear whether the committee would take any further actions, such as conducting oversight hearings on the issue or addressing it through legislation.

One way to address the issue would be to move back to the United States DHS officials stationed at foreign ports who are primarily responsible for "targeting," a process by which the officials review computer assessments of which shipping containers at a port are potentially high risk and determine which containers require manual inspection. Much of this targeting work can be done remotely, the staffer said, particularly for ports where DHS officials have a well-established relationship with the host country and are confident of its ability to properly conduct the manual inspections.

Stationing more DHS officials who do mostly targeting work at home in the United States could save the program money, according to aide, who estimated that it could cost three times as much to station such officials abroad, because of the price of lodging, transportation and cost-of-living adjustments. These savings could free up enough funds to allow the program to expand into new, higher-risk ports.

Such a move has its drawbacks, however. In addition to potentially angering host countries where the U.S. presence would be pared down, the approach could be seen as contrary to a strategy the department has embraced since the failed bombing of a commercial airline flight bound for Detroit in 2009. After the Christmas Day incident, in which the perpetrator was not apprehended until he reached U.S. soil, "DHS recommitted to this idea of having people overseas where they can facilitate inspections," the Senate aide said.

According to the GAO report, there also could be legal obstacles.

"For example, according to [U.S. Customs] and government officials in one country, a national law precludes the transmission of electronic scanned images other than to host government officials," the report says. "As a result, [DHS] officials must be present at each [Container Security Initiative] port in that country to view the scanned images."

The GAO report recommends that the department periodically assess the risks from all foreign ports that ship to the United States in order to "inform any future expansion of [the container-security program] to additional locations and … determine whether changes need to be made" at ports already participating in the program.

The department in a Sept. 4 letter concurred with this recommendation, saying that it would formulate a process for conducting such assessments. DHS officials expect to complete the first assessment by August 2014 and to decide on any changes to the container-security program by December 2014, according to the letter.