TCS Daily

Peril in the Ports

By Michael Standaert - June 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Recently U.S. customs agents were dispatched to the Port of Singapore to screen cargo containers before they left that port bound for the United States. More than 5.7 million cargo containers arrive in the U.S. each year, only about 2 percent of which are physically inspected, relying mainly on computerized reviews of shipping manifests to screen certain cargo for closer attention.

As most ocean cargo traffic into the United States comes from Asia and Europe, Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner is pursuing agreements with the governments of 20 of the main ports that account for 68 percent of the traffic. The main focus currently is on Asia, with Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai the top three ports in export volume to the U.S.

Suitably high-tech resources like radiation detectors, gamma-ray imaging systems and X-ray systems will be employed in this attempt to spot dangerous cargo bound for the U.S. Similar programs have been implemented in Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax, while Canadian customs officials have also been placed at some U.S. ports, and Singapore officials are likely to be as well.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to approve the Port Security Bill, which requires all vessels entering U.S. territorial waters to give notice 96 hours in advance to the Cast Guard and customs officials, while Coast Guard jurisdiction is extended from three miles out to the territorial limit of 12-miles for some inspections.

In speaking with a security expert at the U.S. Mission to the EU, I was also assured that a closer cooperation is being envisioned between the U.S. and Belgian port authorities in Antwerp, whose main customer is the U.S.

The president of the Antwerp port authority, Leo Delwaide, recently said at Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference that Antwerp had decided to fully accede to all US wishes concerning increased security in cargo and shipping. "In the matter of security, the US will impose its will on its European partners, so we will simply comply," he said.

Delwaide also listed a series of security measures already in place in Antwerp like computerized cross-checking, assessment of security risks before cargo arrives in the port and inspections of trucks entering the port area and moving cargo within the port.
All well and good. You can breath a breath of fresh air, right?

Well, maybe not. Here are three examples:

At the OECD meeting, John Evans, general secretary of the trade union advisory committee to the OECD, said the maritime sector remains rife with security holes and is ripe for human rights abuse. Pointedly, he argued that "flags of convenience" clauses in which ship owners, no matter their country of origin, can register their vessels in countries that provide the weakest regulatory environment or most advantageous tax situation, causes unnecessary problems and risks. "If I could make one plea," he said, "it is to move to far greater transparency of ownership and control of ships. Let's use this occasion to actually now begin to raise some of the screens of secrecy about ownership, particularly in the maritime area."

Secondly, last week, Godelieve Timmermans, the first woman head of a Belgian security agency, resigned after a parliamentary report leaked to the media blamed the national security agency for failing to combat Islamic extremism and prevent the recruitment of activists within Belgium. According to the report, members of north African extremist groups were known to have received military training in Belgium's Ardennes forest and nothing was done about it. Members of the Belgian security community are calling for greater cooperation and transparency between the various branches. Sounds oddly close to the recent troubles of non-cooperation between the FBI and CIA in the U.S.

Lastly, citing Douglas Farah's Washington Post article "Al Qaeda Cash Tied to Diamond Trade", Christian Dietrich and Peter Danssaert from & the International Peace Information Service say that "serious allegations [remain] concerning individuals buying rough diamonds to conceal the funding of terrorist organizations." They point out that "Farah concludes that Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) has sold diamonds to members of international criminal groups, namely al Qaeda, partially financing both the international terrorists and the Sierra Leonean rebels. Prolonged and intense warfare in several African countries has been blamed on the international diamond trade, resulting in an international campaign against 'conflict' diamonds. Farah's article adds a new dimension to this campaign, highlighting alleged ties between African 'conflict' diamonds and international terror networks, raising alarm in Europe and the United States. A possible connection between criminal syndicates and illicit diamonds has been suspected for several years, although exact details have eluded United Nations investigators, and perhaps even national intelligence organizations. Farah's article has exposed some evidence that al Qaeda has been able to use the diamond trade to hide money..."

Two Lebanese diamond dealers named by Farah as Aziz Nassur and Sammy Ossailly are alleged to have been funneling millions of dollars to al-Qaeda through their activities. Belgian authorities are currently holding one unnamed man, and another is on the run with an international arrest warrant out for him. The public prosecutor in Antwerp has filed a case against the two men and is currently pursuing action. Representatives from 37 countries met in Ottawa, Canada in early June to agree on a new certification system for rough diamonds that would create a paper trail to identify them open the trade to greater transparency. The certification system is due to be launched in Geneva at the end of the year.

I don't mean to launch into any grand conspiracy theories in linking all of these issues. That would reduce them to sensational pulp. But all these issues do have a common theme and that is greater cooperation between various branches of security, as well as greater transparency within the transportation, financial and commodities industries. The increased port security measures alone will not stop the flow of illegal goods, nor will the high-tech systems implemented to capture them. Many of these systems were in place before, and they only looked at 2 percent of the containers entering the U.S. What will it be now, 4 percent? Or 8 percent? That is still a pretty low number. Even if the number approached 50 percent, there is still a great chance terrorists could infiltrate with weapons, conventional or non-conventional or manpower.

Also, as is the case with the alleged homegrown terrorist Jose Padilla, material within the U.S., or within European countries, could be used. Yes, you can reduce the risk, but you cannot stop it.

What could go a long way in the fight against not only terrorism, but also organized crime, corruption, illegal drug trafficking, conflict diamond trafficking, human trafficking, shady arms dealing, and underground financial networking - all which seem to interlink to use the same lines of movement, contact, and communication - is greater transparency from financial institutions, the shipping industry and increased scrutiny of the various institutions the above illegal organizations use to prey upon. Greater cooperation between national and international security institutions is a prerequisite to this as well. The move away from low-tech human intelligence over the past few decades within the U.S. security institutions toward high-tech monitoring of illegal activities has also left us without the capability to infiltrate and do the dirty work on the ground.



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