New reports and experts testifying in Congress are raising questions about the effectiveness of U.S. government efforts to prevent terrorists from bringing weapons of mass destruction through sea ports.
The criticisms focus on two programs begun after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the United States, aimed at preventing terrorists from using shipping containers, some nine million of which enter U.S. ports each year, to transport a weapon of mass destruction.
The programs are the Container Security Initiative (CSI), and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), involving cooperation with foreign government and customs staffs at ports, and companies handling container shipments.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, finds that, despite increased information sharing and cooperation with partner governments, both programs suffer from a range of significant procedural, staffing and technical problems.
GAO official Richard Stana told the Investigations Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee one third of containers leaving ports covered under CSI are not fully screened because of various staffing issues and diplomatic obstacles.
In addition, he says not all containers identified as "high-risk" and referred to host-nation customs officials are inspected before departure, and some of these may be making it through U.S. ports.
"Our audit check of a three month period found that Customs and Border Protection can and does inspect most of these potentially risky containers when they arrive at U.S. ports. However, we are unable to verify that seven percent of these containers that were referred for stateside inspection were actually inspected upon arrival," he said.
Senate committee investigators who visited seven foreign ports say they found only about one third of containers, and 17.5 percent of cargo identified as "high risk" is currently being inspected.
Robert Bonner is commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
"We do need to elevate, make sure we're getting an even higher percentage of our requests at CSI ports, that are honored, that is to say that the security inspection is done by the host nation," he noted. "We're above 90 percent now, I believe, or an average of 90 percent, don't hold me to the exact figure, but we have steadily moved that up. There are a few ports that are laggards."
Senate investigators also say special accommodations granted to certain "certified" importers were often provided without a thorough investigation and validation of security measures they use.
The GAO also points to a lack of minimal technical requirements for equipment used at foreign ports to detect nuclear materials, saying non-intrusive inspections with X-ray and gamma devices may be the only inspections before containers move into the United States.
The findings on port security come as lawmakers heard from experts about the potential of terrorist groups obtaining either already existing nuclear bombs, or materials that could be used to build so-called "dirty bombs" or "radiological dispersal" weapons.
The U.S. government's Global Threat Reduction Initiative attempts to identify, secure, recover and eliminate such materials, focusing on Russia, but also working to secure or convert highly enriched uranium (HEU) from reactors in other countries.
Paul Longsworth, with the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, describes the dangers.
"The reason we are so concerned with this material is obvious. If terrorists were able to get particularly fissionable material, HEU or plutonium, they would have overcome the most critical step in constructing a nuclear weapon," he said.
But Joan Rohfling, of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee the effort is underfunded, adding the United States and other governments are still not doing enough to keep nuclear materials or warheads out of the hands of terrorists.
"Incredibly, even though our way of life is at stake here, we are pursuing a business as usual approach to preventing nuclear terrorism. The price of slow action could easily be loss of life, property and freedom on an unprecedented and catastrophic scale," she explained.
As the week of hearings on port security, and potential nuclear terrorism ended, two congressional Democrats announced a new effort aimed at correcting what they call serious deficiencies in securing nuclear materials.
Legislation sponsored by Congressman Ed Markey and Senate Democrat Hillary Clinton, would require the U.S. government to report to Congress on the status of nuclear fuel and radiation sources exported to foreign countries, and have the government re-acquire the materials, especially those categorized as being "least secure."
The lawmakers also want foreign governments to certify that recipients of radiological materials are authorized to possess them and that they will be safe and secure.
In announcing their legislation, they note al-Qaida efforts to obtain nuclear materials for "dirty bombs", and say security associated with these materials is, in their words, "sorely lacking."