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Device Would Aid Terrorism Prevention at Ports

Security: An electronic padlock will be tested at five locations. It tracks a container from its country of origin until it arrives in the U.S.


WASHINGTON — A 6-inch device that costs $15 and is used by the Department of Defense to seal containers destined for Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans and war-torn areas may be the key to securing the commercial containers entering our nation's ports, lawmakers said Thursday.

Customs officials and ports operators unveiled a system to track and secure containers from the point of origin to the point of entry. By the end of September, at least 2,000 containers on routes from Hong Kong and Singapore to Los Angeles and three other routes will have tested the device. After packing the container, shippers affix the mechanism to the container handle. It acts as an electronic padlock; if a container's contents are tampered with, the device emits a radio-wave signal indicating where and when the seal was broken and which container is suspect.

"This new partnership sends a clear message," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who sponsored legislation to fund the project, dubbed Operation Safe Commerce. "It tells terrorists that we will protect our cargo and our ports, and close the gaps that may leave us vulnerable."

In February 2000, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned a congressional panel that terrorist bombings at U.S. seaports were "a very real threat."

Two years later, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the government is still trying to tighten security at the nation's 361 ports. More than 95% of international goods enter the country through these ports, making them strategic targets for terrorist activity that could harm workers and disrupt the nation's livelihood.

The American Assn. of Port Authorities estimates that $2.2 billion is needed to meet the government's terrorism and crime prevention security standards for ports. Since Sept. 11, Congress has bolstered port security funding by $150 million.

An additional $475 million for port security depends on the passage of a bill in a House-Senate conference committee. As currently written, most of this funding will pay for Coast Guard units to meet ships at sea and check passenger and crew manifests before escorting them into harbor, and for land-based security.

Currently, only 2% of the 6 million containers entering the U.S. each year are opened and inspected, Coast Guard officials and lawmakers said.

Two dozen people are involved in moving a container from where it is loaded to its destination--buyers, sellers, banks, insurance companies, road and rail companies, the two ports and governments. This generates more than 30 documents and opportunities for cargo mix-ups. The port of origin usually does not have the same security standards as the U.S.

"An authorized shipper is not held accountable to know exactly what is in a container, where it is in the supply chain and to report on its contents," warned Adm. Richard M. Larrabee, a director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, at a recent hearing on homeland security.

"Shipping papers do not have to be complete and accurate until after the cargo arrives in the U.S."

To counteract this, "Operation Safe Commerce" trucks will unload containers overseas at a secure point, and each will be fixed with a metal-and-plastic seal. The container will then be moved to a lot where it would be continually monitored and screened before being loaded onto a ship.

Should someone tamper with the seal at any point during the shipment, radio-frequency identification technology would alert federal authorities, who would then X-ray and take additional safety precautions once the container reaches the ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach, Seattle, Houston or New York-New Jersey--the five locations participating in the pilot program.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex is the nation's busiest, handling more than 2.5 million incoming containers each year. Any interruption would thwart trade worth more than $150 billion and endanger its employees, who account for 1 out of every 24 workers in Southern California.

"We believe that there is a lot of merit in tracking containers from their point of origin to their final destination," said Los Angeles Port Police Chief Noel Cunningham.

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