Senators Question Weaknesses in Border Protection, Especially Risk Assessment of Cargo

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman (D-CT) today expressed concern about potential weaknesses in the Department of Homeland Security’s port security programs and sought more information from the agency about what steps it is taking to improve those programs. In a letter to Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson, the Senators raised questions in particular about flaws in the system that is supposed to target high-risk containers for inspection.

“Just one small lapse in security at our ports or at other points of entry can have disastrous consequences for our nation,” said Senator Collins. “While we have taken steps to protect our ports, it is clear that they are still ‘ripe for exploitation,’ as one security expert put it.” “The security of our nation’s 361 ports is an Achilles’ heel in the domestic war against terrorism,” said Lieberman. “Because so few of the containers that come through these ports are inspected, it’s far too easy for dangerous materials, weapons, and people to slip into the country. Despite some progress made by the Department of Homeland Security, our port security will be seriously undermined unless urgent improvements are made to the risk analysis program.” Hutchinson testified before the Committee about container security issues in March and outlined DHS programs designed to deal with the problem. The Senators’ letter seeks an update on the progress of those programs and asks specific questions about areas of concern. The Senators said three specific weaknesses of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection’s security efforts could undermine the effectiveness of port security programs, including the Container Security Initiative and Operation Safe Commerce:

  • Customs and Border Protection still relies on information solely from cargo manifests, historically highly unreliable documents. The limited detail of these manifests is insufficient for identifying security problems and should be expanded significantly to include purchase order data collected starting at the time of a purchase.
  • Customs and Border Protection lacks a comprehensive program to track containers through multiple shipment points starting prior to the point of loading. This gap could allow terrorists to hide the true contents of a container by moving it through numerous ports, collection points, and transportation modes. The agency should eliminate this vulnerability by expanding its program to collect data from all ports of call, as well as track containers from port of origin to port of destination.
  • Customs and Border Protection does not have a credible process in place to ensure “low risk” containers are really low risk. Random checks should be instituted to provide a benchmark and assess the effectiveness of the new Automated Targeting System, which evaluates the risks of each container.
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