WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Me., and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Thursday expressed concerns that U.S. ports remain vulnerable to terrorist attack because officials still know far too little about the contents of shipping containers entering the U.S., particularly in making an informed determination as to those which should be deemed high risk. Citing a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG) report on the global supply chain and the security of high-risk containers, the two Senators said more needs to be done to improve the container targeting system.
“Customs and Border Protection has touted its targeting system as key to its approach to container security, but much more remains to be done to improve the way we examine containers coming to our ports,” the Senators said. “Today, we cannot inspect every container without bringing trade to a standstill. For that reason, an effective targeting system is important to focus the use of our inspection resources. While CBP had to roll out this system quickly following the 9/11 attacks, it must strive to continually enhance their capabilities. We urge DHS to address the deficiencies identified in the IG report as quickly as possible.” The targeting system, known as the Automated Targeting System (ATS), is central to the operations of two key programs designed to reduce the likelihood of terrorists using containers to ship weapons of mass destruction to the U.S. Those programs are the Container Security Initiative, which targets and inspects containers overseas, before they have arrived in the U.S., and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which allows fewer inspections for companies that take voluntary steps to secure their containers and supply chains. The DHS IG report concluded that the container information supplied to the ATS was insufficient, that the Customs and Border Protection division of DHS was failing to refine and improve ATS, and that physical control over high-risk containers needed improvement. The report further noted, “the overseas segment of the supply chain is the most problematic since it includes all initial handling and movement of the containers from the loading of the container to placing the container on board a U.S.-bound vessel, and is outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government.” Collins and Lieberman wrote to then-Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson in October 2003 warning him that limitations of the targeting system “diminish(es) the effectiveness of container security programs.” The Government Accountability Office and the Treasury Department Inspector General have also produced reports critical of the targeting system. “The possibility that weapons of mass destruction could be imported into our country constitutes a worst case scenario,” Collins and Lieberman said. “Port security must continue to be a top homeland security priority.”