Skip to main content
In The News

Experts Renew Warnings on Port Vulnerabilities

Experts Renew Warnings on Port Vulnerabilities

Original article from

By Juana Summers

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Terrorists could exploit gaps in port security and smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States, a group of policy experts warned Wednesday, reviving a decade-old call for tougher security.

Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander, said he believes that the cargo containers that arrive in the United States each year could be used to deliver nuclear weapons, and that lesser grade contraband is already making its way into the country through porous ports.

“Despite the efforts that have been put in place with regards to containerized cargo, you name the contraband and it’s still flowing through this system, whether it’s knock-off products on the low end; to movements of large sums of cash; to narcotics still; to every form of weapon short of nuclear weapons,” Flynn said Wednesday at an American Security Project event.

Flynn, who has been one of the loudest voices sounding the alarm on the potential vulnerability of U.S. ports to terrorist attacks, argued that vulnerabilities in ships and seaports have received scant attention in comparison with airplanes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“One of my concerns is that the system is both vulnerable still to potentially someone putting something in it and not being able to detect it and intercept it in time, but the other issue is the huge consequence of doing so,” Flynn said.

Jay Cohen, a principal at the Chertoff Group and a former Department of Homeland Security undersecretary, agreed, arguing that cargo containers pose a “very valid threat” for the United States, and an opportunity for international cooperation.

“Very simply, nuclear material arriving at a U.S. port in a container in all likelihood was both acquired elsewhere and it was shipped undetected from elsewhere,” he said.

The fear of terrorists smuggling radioactive material or a nuclear weapon into the United States by way of one of the nation’s more than 300 ports is not new, but has been revived in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing that left three dead and hundreds injured.

Vice President Joe Biden told graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy last week that the country would soon rely more on their service, as “new stateless actors have stepped into the breach with the desire to smuggle weapons of terror into American ports in the belly of cargo containers to do our people great harm.”

The threat has also been the target of lawmakers. Congress in 2007 passed a law calling for all cargo containers entering the United States to be scanned for radioactive material, part of the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many critics of that program have argued that it was both expensive and without proven results.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said she believes that a 100 percent maritime cargo-screening mandate makes for easy rhetoric, but that there may be more cost-efficient, effective ways to ensure port security.

Napolitano said earlier this year that “as we have grown and become more knowledgeable about how to really manage risk, we have recognized that mandates like that sound very good but point of fact are extraordinarily expensive and there are better and more efficient ways to accomplish the same result.”

But that’s left some security and intelligence insiders thinking the administration isn’t taking the threat seriously enough, and that an attack from a shipping container could be imminent.

Stanton Sloane, the president and CEO of Decision Sciences International Corporation — a company offering its own cargo-screening solution — said it’s important to “scan everything,” not just engage in selective scanning.

“I believe that we have to get to a regime that scans everything and that’s for two reasons,” he said. “One is that we have to find these bad devices and we have to do that where bad guys are clever and are going to shield that and try to hide it from existing technology … Irrespective of whether it’s our technology or someone else’s technology, we’ve got to get better technology out there. The threats today are growing, they’re serious and we do not have an adequate technical response to the problem.”

Leave a Reply