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Nuclear Terrorism – Apparently Not By Sea

Since September 11th, security at container ports in the United States has been a major concern. There has been considerable publicity and chatter about the number of the cargo containers coming into our ports going uninspected (initially reported to be less than 5% but now stated as nearly 90%), and the possibility that one such container might slip through the security net with a nuclear device or contraband nuclear material. With bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress increased funding for port security and placed an emphasis on testing all cargo for radiological material.

Within months of the September 11th attacks, U.S. Customs Service had created the Container Security Initiative (CSI). One of the minimum standards of this effort was the presence of non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment (gamma or X-ray) and radiation detection equipment. For reference, this is a copy of the most recent Strategic Plan for the Container Security Initiative.

Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, increased security focused on the aviation industry and not on shipping.

That changed dramatically in 2006 when lawmakers opposed a deal to grant control of six U.S. ports to a Middle East based company, Dubai Ports World. Under scrutiny, Dubai Ports World backed out of the arrangement.

But the furor over the ports deal generated bipartisan support for increased port security measures. Later that year, lawmakers passed a Port Security Bill, earmarking more than $7 billion over five years to the effort.

In his July 27, 2006 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, Vayl Oxford the Director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of the Department of Homeland Security clearly stated. “The gravest threat to America is a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists.”

But now, the DNPO chief is downplaying the container threat. As reported in the May 25th issue of Global Security Newswire, Director Oxford said that would-be nuclear terrorists would be extremely unlikely to bring such a device into the United States in a container ship. This is in contrast to the fact that the DNPO is heavily promoting efforts to get the next generation of radiation scanners into port facilities.

“Everyone wants to know how we’re doing on scanning their containers. I personally don’t think the threat is coming through this mechanism,” Domestic Nuclear Detection Office head Vayl Oxford said during a breakfast presentation held by the National Defense University Foundation yesterday. “Giving up a nuclear device putting it in a container and letting it float around the world for a couple of weeks is probably folly. But it’s a great metric. Everybody loves to count containers,” Oxford said.

Instead, Oxford believes that his office should increase its focus on "non-port of entry venues" -- especially the porous northern border, where only forty percent of land entry points are monitored in any way. "I think what you’ll see is the emergence of mobile systems that will allow us to search the location as necessary as opposed to a lot of fixed locations," Oxford said. That approach mirrors that being taken to deal with smaller watercraft. According to Oxford, by the end of the year "all Coast Guard boarding teams will be equipped with some sort of radiation detection equipment."

All of this comes at a time when a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill is asking for an audit of the Bush Administration’s plans to buy radiation detectors. Primarily, the law makers are questioning the pace of testing and deployment along with the:

…management challenges that are inherent in evolutionary or spiral advanced technology development acquisitions of the type [the department] is conducting," the lawmakers added. "These challenges have the potential to produce soaring cost overruns, schedule delays or performance problems, including those that result from laudable efforts by agencies to accelerate the use of advanced technologies." The department did not have an immediate response to the lawmakers' concerns.

It was back in September 2006 that the initial award of the contracts to screen cargo for nuclear materials were awarded.

Additionally, there has been much recent speculation of the threat of nuclear terrorism, and specifically whether al Qaeda already possessed either the weapon or the nuclear raw materials. While some people continue to maintain the position that if al Qaeda has such a weapon they would have already used it, I know that at least one of my colleagues believes that the question is more likely one of how to "deliver the package."

One question (at least) is raised by all of this. If there was such a rush to acquire portal radiological detector, why now does Mr. Oxford shift attention away from cargo entering through out seaports?



Lawmaker-forced reversal of Dubai Ports World's attempted acquisition of U.S. port management had very little to do with true security issues but a lot with the American public's growing xenophobia. But in this relatively minor case, security-citing politicians could readily accommodate the public, especially irate in New York. Now,however, with the massive reaction to possible legalization of illegal immigrants, we see the real issue: `globalization' as imposed by the world's economic elites. From this perspective, `threats' narrowly defined as `terrorism,' cover only a narrow slice of the worldwide instability, produced by rapid technological and economic transformation.

Michael, you may be right in the global perspective. But when I mentioned this to one of my associates yesterday (who happens to represent a smaller company that has "gamma" technology), he was quite surprised about the position reversal on this. All of a sudden containers through our seaports aren't a threat? What about all of the money that's been spent, not just on portal detection for railways and truck transport, but for seaports here and overseas?

Without knowing the answer, my only thought is that they're confident that the scanning of cargo at the ports of origination will eliminate or substantially reduce the threat of entry through one of the U.S. ports.

I think you answered part of your question in the response. Another part of the answer seems to me to lie in the nature of our enemy- exploitation of weak links and areas where emphasis has been missing is their speciality.

Nuclear terrorism from Al-Qaeda is clealy America's major national security threat. I address the threat of nuclear terrorism in my novel about the next Al-Qaeda attack, "King of Bombs."