The Limitations of the Current Cargo Container Targeting

March 31, 2004

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

More on:

Defense and Security

Written Testimony before a hearing of theSubcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Energy and Commerce United States House of Representatives


“A Review to Assess Progress with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection's Targeting Program for Sea Cargo”


Stephen E. Flynn, Ph.D.
Commander, U.S. Coast Guard (ret.)
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies

March 31, 2004

Chairman Greenwood and distinguished members of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. I am the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations where I recently directed the Independent Task Force on Homeland Security, co-chaired by former Senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart. In June 2002, I retired as a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years of active duty service. I am honored to be appearing before you this morning to discuss the vitally important issue of cargo container security. The topic of this hearing could not be more critical given the ongoing threat of terrorism directed at the United States.

As a nation, we are still struggling to come to grips with the core lesson of 9/11: What we witnessed on that day is how warfare will be conducted against the United States for the foreseeable future. This year our nation is spending more on conventional military power than the next thirty nations combined. By 2008, we will be spending more than the rest of the world combined. Even in its heyday, the Roman Empire never could boast of such an overwhelming preponderance of military power. In our contemporary context, what America’s military supremacy means is that the only way our current and future adversaries can attack us is to sidestep our military muscle. On September 11, al Qaeda signaled that catastrophic terrorism is both a viable and potent weapon to strike the United States. This is because such attacks currently hold out the near certainty of generating widespread economic and societal disruption which weakens the foundation upon America’s military power ultimately rests; i.e., the resources to sustain our unparalleled military supremacy and the willingness to use it when our vital interests are threatened.

There are many possible scenarios of how the United States could be targeted by terrorist groups that deserve our urgent attention. Much of the critical infrastructures that underpin our prosperity and way of life remain largely unprotected. This situation is especially true when it comes to the intermodal transportation system that is the backbone of the global supply chains that support our manufacturing and retailing sectors. There has been a longstanding market aversion to investing in security measures within this sector because security has been widely perceived as running against the grain of three imperatives: (1) to make the system as open to as many users as possible, (2) to maximize the efficiency and reliability with which goods move around the planet, and (3) to minimize the cost.

As a consequence the system that makes it possible to move up to 65,000 pounds of goods in one box from anywhere on the planet to the United States for a few thousand dollars has proven to be a boon for organized crime. Based on arrest and seizure records, we know that criminals have been smuggling human beings, small-arms, multi-ton shipments of narcotics, knock-off products, and every other form of contraband in containers. Our trade laws and export-control laws are routinely violated. Cargo thieves stole an estimated $15 billion of goods in 2000— up from about $1 billion of cargo theft a decade before.

The same system that has proven to be so vulnerable to criminal activity, is clearly susceptible to being targeted by terrorists. This disturbing reality has been validated just this month. In the same week as the commuter train bombings in Madrid, there was a chilling attack in Israel that did not command many headlines here in the United States, but has a direct bearing on the topic of this hearing. According to the March 17th edition of the Jerusalem Post, the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the suicide bombings at the Port of Ashdod which killed ten Israelis may have been smuggled from Gaza in a container outfitted with a secret compartment and an arms cache. If this turns out to be the case, the risk that containers can be used as a weapons delivery device is no longer a hypothetical threat.

The terrorist risk associated with containers goes beyond their being a conduit for suicide bombers. A much more disturbing possibility is that a container could be used to transmit a weapon of mass destruction. There is no doubt that should a nuclear weapon be smuggled into the United States and activated, it would have devastating consequences in terms of loss of life and destruction of property within the blast zone. But unlike a weapon delivered by a missile, an attack carried out with a container would likely lead to the shutdown of all U.S. ports. Should the U.S. ports be locked down for a period of three weeks— which is not inconceivable should a terrorist group like al Qeada carry out a simultaneous attack using containers arriving in different ports— the entire global trade system would go into gridlock. Since the transportation system has become the warehouses for just-in-time retailers and manufactures, our store shelves would quickly go bare and our factories would be idled.

The government witnesses who testify before you today will outline that the Department of Homeland Security is pursuing a number of new initiatives to bolster container security. They will point to programs such as the Container Security Initiative, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, and the 24-hour cargo declaration rule. They will highlight the standing up of the National Targeting Center, and the deployment of new equipment in seaports including radiation portals, gamma radiology cargo scanners, and the issuing of 10,000 personal radiation detectors to front-line agents. All of these are important initiatives and deserve the full support of the U.S. Congress. But, you should be skeptical of any assertion that these measures together adequately address the risk that a maritime container will be the source of a future catastrophic attack against the United States.

Any assessment of the adequacy of where we are should not be measured against where we were prior to 9/11, but where we must be to confront the possibility that al Qaeda can obtain a nuclear weapon, that they would attempt to encase that weapon in shielding material to reduce the radiation emissions, and that they would be willing to target the United States with it. Given what we know about both the intentions of radical Jihadist terrorist groups, the limited safeguards in place for protecting the vast nuclear arsenals in the former Soviet Union, and the continued risk of proliferation chillingly illustrated by the recent Libyan revelations, such a scenario should not be seen as remote. In the context of this very real threat, the current measures being pursued by the U.S. government are simply inadequate.

Professor Lawrence Wein of Stanford University, two of his graduate students, Alex Wilkins and Manas Baveja, and myself recently completed a technical study examining how well the existing protocols and detection technologies would fare against a nuclear warhead containing 4 kg of weapons-grade plutonium or 12 kg of weapons-grade uranium, shielded with tungsten and lithium hydride, and which is shipped within a intermodal container with other cargo. Our paper, which is currently under consideration for publication in a scientific journal, uses a mathematical model based on parameters drawn from field data to calculate the probability of detection of these kinds of weapons.

Our findings are sobering. Under the best circumstances, the probability of detection of a weapon from an untrusted shipper is 9.75 percent. If the shipment comes from a certified shipper, the probability of detection rises to only a maximum of 24 percent. To be clear about this, under the best scenario where CBP inspectors successfully target a container from an untrusted source and it passes through the radiography equipment available in our seaports, they have a less than ten percent chance of discovering a shielded nuclear weapon. If the weapon is placed in a 20-foot container which are commonly used to move heavy machinery, the probability of detection drops to nearly zero because the radiography cannot penetrate cargo that would likely be between the wall of the container and the weapon.

As our findings suggest, developing a robust means for assuring container security should rank at the top of our post-9/11 priorities. Unfortunately, we have been slow to make the kinds of necessary changes required to adequately deter terrorists from exploiting this system to target us.

The core weakness of our current container security regime is that at its heart, it can be described as a “trust but do not verify” system. That is, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection assumes that the overwhelming majority of containers are from legitimate sources and therefore can arrive on U.S. soil unexamined. Only those containers which it identifies in advance as high risk should undergo inspection. There are three critical problems with this approach. First, the underlying intelligence to support the targeting remains very tenuous. It will likely be years before the intelligence community succeeds at penetrating the terrorist groups most intent on targeting the United States. In the interim, we are unlikely to have much in the way of advanced warning on who is attacking us, when, and how.

Second, the Automated Targeting System that CBP relies on to identify high-risk cargo shipments is too dependent on cargo manifest information which is error-prone and does not provide transshipment data. These manifests will only tell where container was loaded before it comes to the United States. For instance, goods destined for the U.S. may start in a small factory on an Indonesian island, then be shipped by a coastal ship to Jakarta, and then loaded aboard a different vessel for the journey to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong, this shipment may be mixed with other shipments by a cargo consolidator, who will provide a cargo manifest to CBP that says the box is coming from Hong Kong and is being shipped to a U.S. destination. The point of origin and transshipment information for the cargo that originated in Indonesia would not be available for CBP to evaluate.

Third, the decision of what constitutes an adequate inspection of a container which is designated as high-risk by the National Targeting Center is left to the discretion of the inspectors assigned to each port. An inspection can be anything from a more detailed document check, a walk-by of the container, the opening of the container door and a brief look inside, the passing of the container through a radiological portal, the taking of a radiological image of the containers contents, and the removal of all the containers contents to examine both the freight and the container walls, floor, and ceiling. Since emptying a container takes an average of five agents working up to three hours, this only happens about one-tenth of one-percent of the time.

In short, given the limited intelligence and the documentation to support the targeting process and the lack of agreed-upon minimal standards for carrying out a container inspection, we should have little confidence in the capacity of CBP to identify and adequately examine all those containers which pose a risk. In fact, it would be more appropriate to assume that terrorist groups have the means to determine which shipments CBP is likely to view as low risk and that terrorists will then exploit those containers. Since a container moving from Asia passes through an average of seventeen intermediate points before it arrives at its final U.S. destination, there are ample opportunities for a container from a trusted shipper to be intercepted and compromised by determined terrorist groups.

The limitations of our current protocols and technologies for targeting and inspecting high-risk cargo mandate that we rethink the bomb-in-a-box challenge. Securing cargo containers boils down to three things. First, there should be a system in place that ensures only legitimate and authorized goods are loaded into a container. Second, once a container is on the move within the global transportation system, there should be measures that protect the shipment from being intercepted and compromised. Third, each port should have a rapid and effective means to inspect cargo containers that arouse concern. Once a box leaves a factory, it should not be open game for thieves to take items out or for terrorists to put weapons in. Inspections at borders should be about checking that these point-of-origin and in-transit controls have not been violated. In short, a top priority must be to move from the current “trust-but-don’t-verify” system to one where verifiable measures are in place to protect all shipments.

Developing the means to adequately secure the system that moves fifteen million containers on any given day might seem Herculean, but it turns out the problem is more manageable than the numbers suggest. This is because virtually all boxes will pass through just a handful of seaports if they are going to find their way to the United States. In fact, approximately seventy percent of the seven million containers that arrived in U.S. ports in 2002 originated from or moved through just four overseas terminal operators; Hutchison Port Holdings, P&O Nedloyd, PSA Corporation, and Maersk-Sealand. That maritime transportation is concentrated in so few places and managed by so few hands makes it an extraordinary pressure point. The major terminal operators should be the gatekeepers who ensure that only secure boxes will be loaded onto ships that cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Their job would involve assisting authorities to accomplish two things. First, they should be able to help confirm that a low-risk container is in fact low-risk. Second, if a container has been deemed high-risk, they should be able to handle it in a way that poses a minimal level of danger and disruption.

To ensure that a container belonging to a trusted shipper has not in fact been compromised, we should insist that it be loaded in an approved secure facility at its point of origin. These facilities would have loading docks with safeguards that prevent workers or visitors from gaining unauthorized entry. The loading process could be monitored by camera and bonded third-party inspectors who would verify the goods are legitimate.

The container could be outfitted with light, temperature, or pressure sensors that could detect an unauthorized intrusion. Additionally, there should be an internal sensor that could detect indications of prohibited items such as gamma and neutron emissions associated with a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb, prohibited chemicals and biological substances, or CO2 generated by a stowaway. A container tracking device could keep a global positioning system (GPS) record of the route that the container travels. The truck drivers moving the container could be subjected to background checks. If the driver strayed from his designated route, a radio signal could transmit an alarm to the relevant authorities, providing them with advance warning of the suspicious activity.

Once a container arrived at a terminal, it should pass through a non-intrusive inspection unit which is equipped to detect radiation, to interrogate the sensors installed in the box, and to create a cat-scan style image of its contents. This image, along with other sensor data, would be forwarded through a secure internet link to all the national customs authorities along the route. Sharing data records would allow experts to remotely look over the shoulder of frontline agents. Knowing that their inspection could be double-checked would make these agents less willing to accept a payoff to look the other way. This extra set of eyes would also provide another chance to detect problems. Even if the container was mistakenly allowed to be loaded on a ship by an overseas agent, the ship could be ordered to stay offshore until arrangements can be made to offload and inspect the container in a safe location.

Ensuring that a box could be found after it has been loaded and that it is not diverted from its advertised route means that authorities have to be able to track a ship once it has left a port. Assuming that a ship made it into port without incident, its containers should be selectively spot-checked. Containers should pass through radiation detectors, and a scanned image at the arrival port should be compared with the image taken at the loading port. If the images and sensor data match, it can be safely concluded that the shipment has not been tampered with and it can be released. The containers should then be tracked as they move to their final destination, allowing the ability to intercept the shipment in the face of late-breaking intelligence.

This level of attention should also apply to outbound U.S. cargo. As the recent Port of Ashdod incident highlights, port terminals can be targeted by land as well as by sea. A domestic-based terrorist could put a bomb into a shipment of exports, and then set off the explosive device once it arrives in the stateside port facility. Additionally, the U.S. needs to practice what it preaches if it wants to sustain support from its trade partners for their efforts to examine containers destined for American shores.

This combination of harnessing new technologies and designing the means to check and double-check the status of shipments would help accomplish several things. It would create an effective deterrent against terrorists shipping a nuclear weapon in a container. By using a mix of sensors and more vigorous monitoring, we could push the probability of detection from its current ten percent levels into the ninety percent range. Given the difficulty of obtaining a nuclear weapon, a terrorist organization would think long and hard before taking on those kinds of odds.

Also, if the authorities received specific intelligence that a weapon had been mixed in with a shipment destined for America, outfitting containers so they could be tracked would provide the means to act on that intelligence without disrupting the rest of the transportation system.

Should detection and interception efforts fail, visibility also gives government authorities the means to quickly answer the question, “What went wrong?” If it takes days or weeks to determine just how an attack happened, every box will be viewed by a frightened public as another potential weapon. Supply chain visibility can help in the same way that cockpit and flight data recorders are used in accidents involving passenger aircraft. Finding these recorders and providing an early indication of the probable cause of the accident play an important role in getting passengers back on planes after an airline disaster. Similarly, if government officials have the ability to quickly identify a bomb’s origin, they would have a better chance of calming the public without having to shut down the entire transportation system to verify that it is free of explosives.

Happily, developing the means to track and verify the status of containers provides benefits that go beyond security. There is a powerful commercial case for constructing this capability as well. When retailers and manufacturers can monitor the status of all their orders, they can confidently reach out to a wider array of suppliers to provide them what they need at the best price. They also can trim their overhead costs by reducing inventories with less risk that they will be left short.

Transportation providers will benefit from greater visibility as well. Terminal operators that have earlier and more detailed information about incoming goods can develop load plans for outbound vessels in advance and direct truck movements with greater efficiency.

Greater visibility also brings potential benefits for dealing with insurance issues. Knowing precisely where and when a theft takes place makes it easier to decipher the nature of the threat and to identify what breaches, if any, contributed to the loss. When there is damage, it is much easier to track down the responsible parties. In short, rather than spreading the risk across the entire transportation community, insurance premiums can be more carefully tailored. In turn, that creates a stronger market incentive for all the participants in the supply chain to exercise greater care.

Putting in place this comprehensive system to ensure end-to-end visibility and accountability of containerized cargo does not require futuristic technologies. Taking and transmitting digital images is now routinely done by proud parents who want to send baby pictures to distant friends and relatives. General Motors has its “OnStar” service, which allows it to find a car if it is stolen, to alert emergency personnel if the air bag is deployed, to remotely diagnose an engine problem, or to unlock a car if a customer leaves his key inside. Sensors that can be built into a container are under development and will probably cost no more than $250 per box if widely deployed. To put that cost into perspective, the average container is used for ten years. That means that over the life of the container, the initial cost of installing sensor technologies into the box would add about $5 to the price tag of each shipment.

Radio Frequency transceivers are now in common use across the northeast by commuters who use electronic toll systems such as E-Z Pass. These devices can store data that range from a single identification signature to thousands of records. Within the United States, virtually all rail cars have these transceivers installed so railroad companies can provide their customers with ongoing position reports of where their freight is and when it will arrive at its final destination.

The latest radiation detection portals and container scanning equipment are being combined into a single unit and can capture images of trucks moving at speeds up to 10 m.p.h. These units cost about $1 million each. Large ports would need several to ensure that the screening process would not slow the flow of trucks. They would also need to have spares on hand to allow for routine maintenance or to swap out a unit that breaks down for some reason. Developing a secure network to share and analyze the scanned images across multiple jurisdictions is a matter of investing in new command centers with strong information technology backbones and well-trained analysts.

In the age of GPS, there is no technical barrier to tracking ships on the high seas. In fact, virtually every ocean-going vessel that travels the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans maintains regular contact with its parent company by using a system called INMARSAT. It is essentially a mobile phone that uses satellites instead of land-based antennas. Whenever an INMARSAT radio is used, the satellite knows the precise location of the caller.

This is obviously an ambitious agenda, but both the post-9/11 terrorist threat and our current vulnerability warrant a comprehensive solution. A nation that is willing to make the kind of investments in both intellectual capital and taxpayer dollars to construct a ballistic missile defense system is more than up to the task of constructing a secure, efficient, and reliable intermodal container system. What is missing is a sense of urgency. We cannot afford to be complacent. We are living on borrowed time.

Thank you Mr. Chairman and I look forward to responding to your questions.

More on:

Defense and Security


Explore More on CFR


In addition to a sharp economic downturn, Venezuela faces a humanitarian crisis. The United States can do little to prevent a downward spiral, but it should take measures to mitigate the political, economic, and humanitarian consequences of a potential mass emigration.

North Korea

The U.S. military is prepared for a number of contingencies with regard to North Korea, but the best path forward is diplomacy aimed at denuclearization.


Italy’s elections will shape the country’s response to economic stagnation, migration woes, and European integration, with repercussions across the continent.