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Inside Politics

Congressional investigators find flaws in port security

From Justine Redman
CNN Washington Bureau

United States
Department of Homeland Security
Economic Indicators

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two government programs designed to prevent terrorists from smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the United States are under-performing, leaving the nation's ports vulnerable, congressional investigators said Wednesday.

In early 2002, the Department of Homeland Security initiated programs intended to improve the screening of shipment containers at their foreign ports of origin and on arrival in the United States.

But government investigators found that at the overseas ports participating in one initiative, only 17.5 percent of containers deemed "high-risk" by the United States were inspected -- far from the stated goal of 100 percent.

A separate Department of Homeland Security program allows import/export companies to minimize time lost to the security screening process by providing a fast-track for approved traders.

However, according to investigators, only 11 percent of those traders approved by the United States have been vetted.

The findings were issued by the Senate subcommittee on investigations and in two reports released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.

"Ensuring the security of our global supply chain is critical to homeland security since maritime trade accounts for over 25 percent of the U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) and many experts believe that terrorists are likely to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of the global supply chain for their nefarious purposes," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota, said in a written statement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner rebuffed criticism, telling CNN, "The reality is these are major companies we have dealt with for years .... We got tremendous security benefits by essentially embracing the private sector in what is the largest and most successful government-private sector partnership to form after 9-11."

The Senate investigations subcommittee has scheduled a hearing Thursday to examine the cargo security programs, known as the Container Security Initiative and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Bonner is scheduled to testify.

Among the recommendations made by the GAO are that Homeland Security officials should improve staffing and establish standards for the technology used in inspecting containers by U.S. officials and by inspectors in international ports.

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