DHS Signals Growing Interest In Hong Kong Container Security Effort

Agency looking at privately managed maritime container security pilot program

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is becoming more interested in how it can take advantage of a privately managed maritime container security pilot program underway at a Hong Kong port since 2004 by letting it inspect more high risk cargo shipments, a senior Homeland Security official said last week.

The program of interest is the Integrated Container Inspection System (ICIS), in which the terminal operator, Hutchison Port Holdings, inspects 100 percent of all the containers passing through two terminals. First the containers pass through a radiation portal monitor to alert for potential radioactive sources, and then they go through a gamma-ray imaging device to give operators an image of the internal contents. ICIS also includes optical scanners to obtain data on the container itself.

The ICIS system was installed by SAIC.

That inspection rate stands in contrast to the slim number of containers coming into the United States that are inspected, about 5 percent. On the other hand about 67 percent of all containers coming into the U.S. are inspected by radiation monitors. Those figures include inspections carried out overseas at port of departure and in the U.S. at ports of entry.

Congress is eager to see more containers inspected and DHS is trying to comply.

"I would tell you that after extensive discussions with industry about the ICIS pilot and its underlying technology and its underlying business concepts that I find myself highly optimistic that this pilot can point the way to a collaborative network that can significantly enhance CBP's (Customs and Border Protection) capability physically to inspect a large number of containers from points worldwide," Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of DHS, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was in Hong Kong last week as part of a trip to Asia to see how ICIS works. Last month Chertoff mentioned his plans to visit Hong Kong, but cautioned that their assessment methods might not be up to U.S. government standards (Defense Daily, March 2). DHS officials have said that while ICIS is collecting data, that information isn't being thoroughly reviewed before ships head to sea.

Jackson on Thursday echoed his boss's concerns but also pointed to the opportunity offered by ICIS.

"That data [collected by ICIS] is not being used as, I understand it, operationally to manage security in the work stream that exists right now," Jackson said. However, he said, "It offers tremendous promise to do exactly that. And after consultations on this topic CBP has begun a comprehensive review of a large [amount] of this data to try to integrate this to our own targeting information, our own profiling information, through the Automated Targeting System (ATS)."

ATS is used to search through computer databases of cargo manifests and passenger information to identify high risk cargo for further inspection. By networking into an ICIS type system DHS would be "able to say here's a container of high risk," Jackson said. "Let's look at these images."

Based on a review of those images DHS officials could be able to determine whether there's a need for further inspection or not, Jackson said. "And then we have to drive protocols that would allow us to inspect the things that need inspecting in a more physical and labor intensive inspection."

Jackson said that when Chertoff returns to the U.S. DHS plans to focus on how it can move forward with working to take advantage of ICIS.

ICIS has caught the attention of several in Congress who desire that 100 percent of the cargo destined for the U.S. be inspected for radioactive and other threats.

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