Thinking inside the box needed to secure borders, write CISAC professor and colleague

The president's border security and immigration reform proposals won't protect Americans from the gravest cross-border threat: the possibility that a ship, truck or train will one day import a 40-foot cargo container in which terrorists have hidden a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon. To tackle this problem, policymakers need to think inside the box, write CISAC's Lawrence M. Wein and colleague Stephen E. Flynn in this New York Times op-ed.

This week President Bush will seek to focus the nation's attention on border security and immigration reform. But the president's proposals won't protect Americans from our gravest cross-border threat: the possibility that a ship, truck or train will one day import a 40-foot cargo container in which terrorists have hidden a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon.

The Bush administration maintains that it has a smart strategy to reduce this risk. A new 24-Hour Rule requires that importers report the contents of their containers to customs inspectors one day before the boxes are loaded on ships bound for the United States. The Department of Homeland Security's National Targeting Center then reviews the data, checking against other intelligence to determine which boxes may pose a threat. Although the containers deemed high risk are inspected at cooperating foreign ports or when they enter the United States, the rest--more than 90 percent--land here without any perusal.

We have two concerns about this strategy. First, it presumes that the United States government has good enough intelligence about Al Qaeda to reliably discern which containers are suspicious and which are not. But our inability to thwart the attacks in Iraq demonstrates that we lack such specific tactical intelligence. And supporting customs inspectors, who must make the first assessment of risk, is not a priority for the intelligence agencies. Inspectors must rely on their experience in spotting anomalies--a company that claims to be exporting pineapples from Iceland, for example.

Second, determined terrorists can easily take advantage of the knowledge that customs inspectors routinely designate certain shipments as low risk. A container frequently makes 10 or more stops between its factory of origin and the vessel carrying it to American shores. Many of the way stations are in poorly policed parts of the world. Because name-brand companies like Wal-Mart and General Motors are widely known to be considered low-risk, terrorists need only to stake out their shipment routes and exploit the weakest points to introduce a weapon of mass destruction. A terrorist cell posing as a legal shipping company for more than two years, or a terrorist truck driver hauling goods from a well-known shipper, can also be confident of being perceived as low risk.

So what needs to be done? A pilot project under way in Hong Kong, the world's largest container port along with Singapore, offers one piece of a potential solution. At an estimated cost of $7 per container, new technology can photograph the box's exterior, screen for radioactive material, and collect a gamma-ray image of a box's contents while the truck on which it is carried moves at 10 miles per hour.

Terrorists can defeat radiation sensors by shielding a dirty bomb with dense materials like lead. But by combining those sensors with gamma ray images, the Hong Kong system allows inspectors to sound the alarm on suspiciously dense objects. Inspectors would need to analyze enough of the scans--perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent--to convince terrorists that there is a good chance that an indistinct image will lead a container's contents to be sent for more reliable X-ray or manual examinations. Images of container contents would then be reviewed remotely by inspectors inside the United States who are trained to spot possible nuclear weapons.

If terrorists were to succeed in shipping a dirty bomb, for example, the database of these images could serve as a kind of black box--an invaluable forensic tool in the effort to identify how and where security was breached. That information could help prevent politicians from reacting spasmodically and freezing the entire container system after an attack.

Such a program could significantly reduce the likelihood that terrorists will smuggle plutonium or a dirty bomb through American ports. But it still would not stop a terrorist from importing highly enriched uranium, which can be used to construct a nuclear weapon. Lengthening the time that a container is screened for radiation would help, and this could be done without increasing waiting times if additional monitors were added to the Hong Kong system near the gate where the trucks must already stop for driver identification checks. Better still would be for the Department of Homeland Security to make the development of new technology that can recognize the unique signature of highly enriched uranium an urgent priority.

Finally, we must find ways to ensure that terrorists do not breach containers before shipments arrive at loading ports. Sensors should be installed inside containers in order to track their movements, detect any infiltration and discern the presence of radioactive material. Where boxes are loaded, certified independent inspectors should verify that companies have followed adequate protocols to ensure that legitimate and authorized goods are being shipped.

Taken together, these recommendations will require new investments and an extraordinary degree of international cooperation. But increased container security will not only help the United States prevent terrorism, it will also help all countries reduce theft, stop the smuggling of drugs and humans, crack down on tariff evasion and improve export controls. What's more, such a program would require an investment of just one one-hundredth of the capital that could be lost if we shut down the global container shipping system after an attack.

Container security is a complex problem with enormous stakes. American officials insist that existing programs have matters well in hand. But we cannot afford to take these perky reassurances at face value while the same officials fail to embrace promising initiatives like the Hong Kong pilot project.