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Finding A New Direction At Fletcher

Finding A New Direction At FletcherFletcher graduate Stephen E. Flynn urges improvements to container security programs in the United States.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.12.05] While President Bush is tackling border security issues pertaining to immigration, 1988 Fletcher graduate Stephen E. Flynn has his eye on another problem involving the country’s perimeter: container security. Flynn recently co-authored an opinion piece in The New York Times where he wrote that while the government claims to have a “smart strategy” to minimize the risks associated with containers coming into the United States, it can learn from projects taking place overseas.

“Container security is a complex problem with enormous stakes,” wrote Flynn, who is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He added that, despite the current 24-hour rule, which calls for all importers to disclose the contents of their containers to customs a day before they leave on ships destined for the United States, many containers make it into the country without sufficient inspection.

“Although the containers deemed high risk are inspected at cooperating foreign ports or when they enter the United States, the rest -- more than 90 percent -- land here without any perusal,” wrote Flynn, author of America the Vulnerable.

The current container inspection strategy, according to Flynn, has two main shortcomings: “it presumes that the United States government has good enough intelligence about Al Qaeda to reliably discern which containers are suspicious and which are not … [and it overlooks the fact that] determined terrorists can easily take advantage of the knowledge that customs inspectors routinely designate certain shipments as low risk.”

A new program taking place in Hong Kong, one of the world’s largest container ports, could help the United States overcome these issues, Flynn pointed out.

“At an estimated cost of $7 per container, new technology can photograph the box's exterior, screen for radioactive material, and collect a gamma-ray image of a box's contents while the truck on which it is carried moves at 10 miles per hour,” he wrote in the Times. “Terrorists can defeat radiation sensors by shielding a dirty bomb with dense materials like lead. But by combining those sensors with gamma ray images, the Hong Kong system allows inspectors to sound the alarm on suspiciously dense objects.”

According to Flynn, in order for this system to be effective, inspectors would need to analyze around 20 to 30 percent of all containers “to convince terrorists that there is a good chance that an indistinct image will lead a container's contents to be sent for more reliable X-ray or manual examinations.”

Those images, he wrote, “would then be reviewed remotely by inspectors inside the United States who are trained to spot possible nuclear weapons.”

One added benefit of this type of program is that these images can be stored in a database, which, in the case of a terror attack, will act like a “black box -- an invaluable forensic tool in the effort to identify how and where security was breached,” Flynn wrote. “That information could help prevent politicians from reacting spasmodically and freezing the entire container system after an attack.”

But even Hong Kong’s progressive system could be improved to enhance container security, Flynn added, especially when it comes to detecting highly enriched uranium. He proposed the installation of sensors inside containers “to track their movements, detect any infiltration and discern the presence of radioactive material.”

These changes are no small task, he added, but they are necessary.

“American officials insist that existing programs have matters well in hand,” Flynn wrote. “But we cannot afford to take these perky reassurances at face value while the same officials fail to embrace promising initiatives like the Hong Kong pilot project.”












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