'More Must Be Done' on Port Security

The U.S. has been told it should expand its information-gathering efforts on containers bound from foreign ports, beef up its commitment to the Container Security Initiative, work with industry to identify specific gaps in the supply chain security system and develop effective solutions.

Testifying before the Senate committee on commerce, science and transport, Chris Koch, chief executive of the World Shipping Council, argued that for all the progress made in improving supply chain security much more needed to be done to identify and minimise existing vulnerabilities.

The 24-hour rule implemented by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection two years ago, for instance, examines carriers' manifest data in an effort to pre-screen US-bound boxes.

Mr Koch noted, however, that this information was distinctly limited as a risk assessment tool.

He recommended that the US importer and non-US exporter should also be required to supply more detailed cargo information to the bureau, which could then assess it through its Automated Targeting System.

Consolidating the efforts already made on CSI, particularly by cementing relations with officials at non-US ports, was also critical to its effectiveness, he said.

He advocated the long-term assignment of experienced customs officials to foreign ports in order to build trust and improve information exchange.

He added that when port officials overseas refused to inspect high-risk containers the officials should issue the carrier with a 'do not load' message.

Mr Koch also urged much closer co-operation between industry and government on developing realistic standards and requirements for container security technology, including 'smart' containers.

The liner companies have long been wary of technology companies seeking to hijack the security agenda in Washington. Mr Koch argued: 'As different technology vendors jockey for position... industry and government need to co-operate and agree on what the security requirements are and what the respective implementation roles of industry and government would be.'

He added that 'cost does matter', proprietary solutions requiring a particular company's product or reading system 'will not be acceptable' and industry would resist strongly efforts by vendors to use information that was gathered through their devices.

The ports, meanwhile, remained concerned about the wide gap between port security measures mandated by law and the funds available to put them in place.

And they were increasingly worried that what they saw as the inadequate levels of grant funding disbursed to date would shrink further under proposals to lump maritime security in with other modes.

To date the port security grant programme has provided $565m to US ports for 1,200 projects and a further $150m will be on offer in fiscal year 2005.

But the US Coast Guard puts the cost of MTSA compliance at $5.4bn over 10 years and the ports are lobbying for a minimum of $400m a year in grants.

Like other speakers before the committee who voiced criticism of the effort to date Jean Godwin, vice-president of the American Association of Port Authorities also expressed some understanding for the government position.

'The Department of Homeland Security faces a dilemma,' she said.

'If it funds only the top risks it leaves a soft underbelly of smaller ports. If it gives a little to everyone little gets done. The problem seems to be one of historic underfunding.'

While acknowledging that the fifth round of grants would focus more on high-risk and vulnerable ports, however, she also described present funding levels as 'a huge constraint to progress'.