Leaky ports

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September 30, 2001 -- Seaports around the nation remain ripe targets for terror, with millions of cargo containers entering the country without being checked, concerned federal officials told The Post. While inspections have been beefed up since the terrorist attacks, less than 2 percent of the 6 million cargo containers that are shipped into U.S. ports annually are opened for inspection, U.S. Customs officials concede.

And the agency's inspectors do not routinely board ocean tankers loaded with flammable and hazardous chemicals, sources said.

"The seaports are wide open," a Customs official told The Post.

"We should be boarding every ship, speaking with the captain and checking all the paperwork."

Some officials fear a container stacked with explosives or other harmful products could be unloaded from a ship and transported on a tractor-trailer through populated areas without ever being checked upon its arrival in the country.

Customs officers last week began working with National Guardsmen and Port Authority cops to conduct more thorough inspections of containers at ports in New York and in Newark and Elizabeth, N.J., before cargo is road-transported.

A Customs official said at the time they were "searching for some type of weapon. We believe it is either in the United States or is about to be introduced here, and we're going through everything."

On Friday, the National Guard drove a mobile X-ray van to the Port of Newark to help speed inspections, sources said.

But security at many local wharves still remains lax. A Post photographer was unchallenged at the Port of Newark last week as he took pictures of the wharves, buildings and container-unloading operations.

It is a worrying weakness in security at one of the nation's gateways - particularly after a security bungle involving photographers in lower Manhattan in June, a lapse first exposed by The Post in a story published July 1.

On that occasion, three men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent were arrested after being spotted acting suspiciously and taking pictures of downtown government buildings. The men were released by the FBI after taking little more action than confiscating their film and checking their immigration status.

Poor security at wharves and the limited inspection of cargo containers were highlighted in an address by former Sen. Warren Rudman to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on Sept. 21 - 10 days after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We were shocked to hear that the Customs Service currently has the capacity to inspect only 1 or 2 percent of all shipments received from overseas in our country," Rudman said. "This has to change."

Rudman said the opportunities for terrorists to sneak weapons of mass destruction through non-inspected shipments into the United States would continue to rise, with the volume of containers arriving at our ports expected to double within four years.

Ports in the New York-New Jersey region handle about 1.7 million containers each year. Customs sources say the volume has already grown beyond the 400 inspectors assigned to local ports.

Customs spokesman Dennis Murphy confirmed only a small percentage of all containers were inspected, but said the agency used an electronic system to track all incoming cargo. He said containers were identified for inspection based on the cargo inside and the origin and destination of the shipment.

"We know a great deal about the containers that arrive," Murphy said. "We have used these systems to look for illegal drugs, and we're applying those systems today to any movement of terrorist or terrorist products."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 01, 2001


Glaringly...a big Problem. Any port city should be taking immeadiate action to be prepared.

-- jimmie-the-weed (thinkasur@aol.com), October 01, 2001.

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