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Smugglers exploit hole in port security

The discovery of 22 Chinese nationals illegally 'shipped' to Seattle reveals continuing gaps in container screening.

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When 22 Chinese nationals let themselves out of a cramped and smelly cargo container at the Port of Seattle last week, it ended their dangerous and costly two-week trip from Shanghai. But after a few minutes of freedom and fresh air, they were apprehended and are likely to be deported.

There was no indication that the 18 men and four women had terrorist ties, officials say. But they had made it to a major downtown area at a time of rising concern about port vulnerability. Some wonder just how easy it would have been to load that 40-foot metal box aboard the MV Rotterdam, a vessel of China Shipping Line, with a weapon of mass destruction.

The episode highlights two things: growing and in some ways uncontrolled emigration to the United States from China; and the post-9/11 effort by officials and lawmakers to tighten security at American ports.

"If this was a chemical weapon exploding in Seattle, the plume could contaminate the rail system, Interstate 5, and SeaTac Airport, not to mention the entire downtown business and residential district," Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who represents America's most trade- dependent state, said in a statement.

Coincidentally, just hours after the 1 a.m. discovery and arrest at Terminal 18 on Seattle's Harbor Island on April 5, the Senate was hearing from experts on the subject. Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, pointed to the "layered system of systems" designed to scrutinize cargo headed for US ports, in some cases before it crosses the ocean. This includes examination of passenger lists and cargo manifests, and flagging anomalies, which prompts special inspection.

"At home, our goal is to have 100 percent inspection of all containers that are transported by truck or rail from a US port into the interior of our country," Mr. Jackson told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "Abroad, our goal is to increase materially the number of containers inspected by radiation-detection tools and by nonintrusive inspections, including large-scale X-ray devices."


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