If terrorists wanted to detonate a nuclear bomb or some other deadly weapon in Charlotte, all they'd have to do is package it in a container leaving an obscure foreign port. The North Carolina State Ports Authority would then deliver the bomb, chemical or biological weapon for them to a convenient detonation point off the Brookshire Freeway just a few miles from downtown. The odds that anyone would detect the deadly materials within the container are slim.
As we first reported a year ago, shipping containers from terrorist hot spots including Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Lebanon arrive at the state's ports every day. From there, much of what comes in is trucked or railed to two inland terminals -- one in Raleigh and one in Charlotte, off Hovis Road.
The only way to be sure that none of the 73,000 containers coming out of our ports each year contains deadly materials is to scan everything with both radiation portals and X-ray machines.
Since the September 11 attacks, Doug Campen, Director of Safety and Security at the North Carolina Ports Authority, has repeatedly requested funding from the federal government for both. Yet today, four years after September 11, the ports have just one X-ray machine, enough to scan a fraction of what comes in. The Authority still has no radiation portals. In fact, only one US port, the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, has been fully equipped with the radiation portals it needs.
NC State Ports Authority Communications Manager Susan Clizbe says the state is requesting funding for the radiation portals again this year, but she doesn't expect the request will be granted. After four years of grant applications, the state's two ports are finally getting some of the money they've requested to begin constructing basic perimeter security and processing identification badges that are supposed to be run against a federal data base that isn't yet up and running.
In an interview with CL last year, North Carolina port officials -- like other port officials around the country -- touted two government programs that were supposed to interdict dangerous containers at foreign ports. Our ports don't have the scanning equipment the government had promised, officials told us, but most cargo was checked out pretty thoroughly at foreign ports before it ever arrived on American soil.
In fact, the officials said, rather than spend money providing our own ports with detection equipment, the government has instead put billions into the National Targeting Center in Reston, VA, where computers scrutinize shipping data from around the world for suspicious cargoes headed to US ports. The theory behind this was that US customs officials stationed at ports around the globe would catch dangerous cargo before it hit our ports. Unfortunately, these state port officials, like the American public, were fed a bucket of hogwash.
The government's data-mining effort is only as good as the data sent to the targeting center, and, as Congress recently learned, odds are that the data is severely flawed. A probe by the Government Accountability Office recently found that a separate government program was exempting hundreds of foreign companies from inspections if they promised to implement voluntary security measures. But Customs is so behind in validating that these measures have been put in place, only 10 percent of the companies exempted have had their security measures verified.
Worse yet, the GAO report found that of the cargo US customs officials have deemed suspicious, only 28 percent was ever inspected after being referred back to the host country for further inspection. Another 35 percent isn't subject to inspection at all.
The bottom line, according to the GAO, is that US officials inspect only 18 percent of "high risk" containers before they arrive at our ports. And while federal officials claim the other 82 percent is inspected once it arrives, the thoroughness of that inspection is questionable, given that nearly every port in the country lacks the basic equipment needed to perform such inspections.
Meanwhile, says Clizbe, the volume of cargo handled by North Carolina's two ports has increased dramatically. Over the last year, she said, the number of containers that pass through the state's ports has grown by nearly 40 percent.
That means each day an increasing number of containers with unknown contents shipped from sketchy locales is being trucked right by downtown Charlotte to the Hovis Road facility. Once there, only a fence and a prayer separate them from the outside world.