Lapses by private port operators, shipping lines or truck drivers could allow terrorists to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States, according to a government review of security at American seaports.
The $75 million, three-year study by the Homeland Security Department included inspections at a New Jersey cargo terminal involved in the dispute over a Dubai company's now-abandoned bid to take over significant operations at six major U.S. ports.
The previously undisclosed results from the study found that cargo containers can be opened secretly during shipment to add or remove items without alerting U.S. authorities, according to government documents marked "sensitive security information" and obtained by The Associated Press.
The study found serious lapses by private companies at foreign and American ports, aboard ships, and on trucks and trains "that would enable unmanifested materials or weapons of mass destruction to be introduced into the supply chain."
The study, expected to be completed this fall, used satellites and experimental monitors to trace roughly 20,000 cargo containers out of the millions arriving each year from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Most containers are sealed with mechanical bolts that can be cut and replaced or have doors that can be removed by dismantling hinges.
The risks from smuggled weapons are especially worrisome because U.S. authorities largely decide which cargo containers to inspect based on shipping records of what is thought to be inside.
Among the study's findings:
_Safety problems were not limited to overseas ports. A warehouse in Maine was graded less secure than any in Pakistan, Turkey or Brazil. "There is a perception that U.S. facilities benefit from superior security protection measures," the study said. "This mind set may contribute to a misplaced sense of confidence in American business practices."
_No records were kept of "cursory" inspections in Guatemala for containers filled with Starbucks Corp. coffee beans shipped to the West Coast. "Coffee beans were accessible to anyone entering the facility," the study said. It found significant mistakes on manifests and other paperwork. In a statement to the AP, Starbucks said it was reviewing its security procedures.
_Truck drivers in Brazil were permitted to take cargo containers home overnight and park along public streets. Trains in the U.S. stopped in rail yards that did not have fences and were in high-crime areas. A shipping industry adage reflects unease over such practices: "A container at rest is a container at risk."
_Practices at Turkey's Port of Izmir were "totally inadequate by U.S. standards." But, the study noted, "It has been done that way for decades in Turkey."
_Containers could be opened aboard some ships during weekslong voyages to America. "Due to the time involved in transit (and) the fact that most vessel crew members are foreigners with limited credentialing and vetting, the containers are vulnerable to intrusion during the ocean voyage," the study said.
_Some governments will not help tighten security because they view terrorism as an American problem. The U.S. said "certain countries," which were not identified, would not cooperate in its security study - "a tangible example of the lack of urgency with which these issues are regarded."
_Security was good at two terminals in Seattle and nearby Tacoma, Wash. The operator in Seattle, SSA Marine, uses cameras and software to track visitors and workers. "We consider ourselves playing an important role in security," said the company's vice president, Bob Waters.
In theory, some nuclear materials inside cargo containers can be detected with special monitors. But such devices have frustrated port officials in New Jersey because bananas, kitty litter and fire detectors - which all emit natural radiation - set off the same alarms more than 100 times every day.
The study applauded efforts to install radiation monitors overseas. "While there is clearly value in nuclear detection at a U.S. port, that is precisely the concern - it is already on U.S. soil," it said.