Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Port Security Thoughts

Welcome to the blog for my new book, "Open Target:Where America is Vulnerable to Attack." I served as the very first Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, from the day the doors opened , January 24, 2003, until my presidential appointment expired on December 8, 2004. During my time in office, it was my job to determine how well the department was carrying out its mission of protecting the nation from a future terror attack. Sadly, I found that the country was still dangerously unprepared, and that there were numerous gaps in our defenses that terrorists could easily exploit. But, rather than attacking the problems and working overtime to close these security gaps, the department's leaders worked overtime to attack me.

"Open Target"is the first insider's account of the Department of Homeland Security and why it's been such a failure to date. The book is to be released in the next couple of weeks, and I hope that it will have the effect of spurring the department, the Administration generally, and the Congress, into taking the steps that need to be taken to protect ourselves to the extent that we can do so. Terrorists are absolutely determined to strike us again, and, from everything we know, they are working urgently to exploit the gaps that remain in our defenses.

Our leaders, on the other hand, are moving at a pre-9/11 pace in a post 9/11 world. They continue to claim that we are safer than we are. The terrorists know otherwise; so, department leaders are merely fooling themselves and, worse, the American people.

Two days ago, for example, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that cargo bound for an American seaport is "screened" before it arrives at our shores, and 100% of "high-risk" cargo is inspected. As I pointed out in my testimony, the first statement is misleading and erroneous; the second one, merely erroneous.

When most people hear that all cargo is screened before it gets to the United States, they take "screened" to mean "inspected." In fact, "screened" simply means that shipping documents are reviewed to determine whether any red flags are raised about, say, the contents or shipping route to suggest that any particular container should be inspected. One has to wonder why the department uses a term like "screened" if the term means less than it implies. The logical explanation is that it does so to mislead the public into thinking that we are safer than we really are.

And, not only is the term misleading, the claim is erroneous, according to nonpartisan, professional congressional investigators. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that 35% of cargo is not screened or "targeted." In other words, we're not evaluating more than a third of the cargo coming into the country to determine whether it is low-risk or high-risk. For all we know, all of that cargo is high-risk, and, therefore, all of it should be inspected to determine whether it contains a weapon of mass destruction or other deadly material.

Of the only 2/3 of the containers that we're evaluating, we are NOT inspecting 100% of the cargo that we determine to be high-risk enough to require inspection. The department touts a program called the "Container Security Initiative" because it "pushes the borders out" by inspecting cargo at foreign seaports before the cargo sets sail for the United States. The department is right to say that inspecting cargo abroad is important because it might be too late to do so once it gets into an American port. We have agreements now with more than 40 countries representing more than 70% of incoming cargo whereby those countries' inspectors are supposed to inspect cargo that we Americans deem to be high-risk.

But a Senate Homeland Security investigation last week found that CSI countries agree to inspect such cargo less than a fifth of the time we request it. The fallback position is for such cargo to be inspected when it gets to the United States (though, again, the whole point of CSI is that waiting until then might be too late). But, according to a GAO report last year, at least 7% of the time, this cargo is not inspected here, either.

Finally, the whole systesm by which cargo is targeted for inspection (the "Automated Targeting System") has been found to be flawed by, among others, the DHS Inspector General's office and GAO.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that, nearly five years after 9/11, the nation remains dangerously unprepared for another terror attack. And, a key reason for that is the department's unwillingness to acknowledge that fact and its corresponding propensity to overstate what it has accomplished to date.