Capital View: The ABCs of smuggling

Capital View: The ABCs of smuggling

WASHINGTON - There's nothing like having front-row seats for a good firefight between government and the media. We had a good one last week: ABC News was trumpeting that it had "smuggled" a load of depleted uranium through U.S. port security, while the Department of Homeland Security was sniping at the network for perpetuating a hoax.

For those who missed it, ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross and his producers arranged to ship a 20-foot container of miscellaneous goods from Jakarta to Los Angeles. They placed some 15 pounds of depleted uranium, shielded in a lead and steel pipe, inside a teak chest. This was the second time that ABC has done this. Last year, ABC shipped the same uranium bar from Istanbul to New York

In both cases, Customs officials said they detected the uranium and released ABC's shipment after inspectors determined that it was not a threat. On the face of it, it appears that Customs followed standard procedure. Inspectors detected ABC's "smuggled" uranium, scanned the sea container at the port of arrival, and released it.

What wasn't said was why Customs didn't detect the depleted uranium before it arrived in the U.S. The container ship Charlotte Maersk picked up the container in Jakarta, and called at Singapore and Hong Kong before sailing for the U.S., and calling at the port of Los Angeles on Aug. 23. Singapore and Hong Kong are participating in the Container Security Initiative (CSI), where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assist local officials in screening suspect shipments before they are loaded aboard a ship. Jakarta does not.

Cargo loaded in Jakarta also is supposed to be screened under U.S. Customs' 24-hour advance manifest filing rule. Customs said the depleted uranium went undetected because ABC had failed to disclose it on the export declaration. ABC's response was obvious: terrorists wouldn't disclose a bomb, either.

After the container was picked up in Los Angeles, ABC was undone when it retrieved the uranium from the container in a downtown parking lot. That made the trucking company nervous, and they reported the incident to the FBI. Law enforcement went into high alert: were these really ABC reporters, or terrorists posing as journalists? Now the network may face criminal charges in the incident.

I'll leave it for someone else to determine ABC's guilt or innocence. What's interesting is Homeland Security's complaint that they "burned a lot of resources" on ABC's hoax. That begs the question, is every false lead a waste of resources, so the only wise expenditure of taxpayers' money is when they actually capture terrorists?

But when it comes to inspection versus detection, ABC and Customs are talking apples and oranges. The network made a big point that the sea container that held the uranium was never inspected. Their experts on nuclear terrorism said that with just a little more shielding, weapons-grade uranium would have given off the same radiation, and the only way to tell whether or not it could be the basic ingredient in a bomb would be to inspect it directly.

Customs used its processes - based on risk management principles - to identify a potential risk, then let it go. They did it by the book and still got skunked.

ABC News was out to demonstrate that America's seaports are vulnerable. That's no news to us who have been following the subject since before Sept. 11, 2001. ABC wasn't talking to us, but people who want to believe that we can still be safe and secure as we were before Sept. 11, if only the government would do its job. For that audience, risk management is a tough sell. It means the government can do its utmost, and another terrorist attack may happen anyway.

Give Customs and Homeland Security credit, supply-chain security is getting better as time goes by. But the supply chain is complex. It's not likely that it can be rendered impervious to every shipment, and every combination of shipper and carrier.

There is also going to be a point of diminishing returns: the cost of making things more secure will not yield extra paybacks in the marketplace. Risk management alone won't cut it. Officials must win public confidence that the U.S. is resilient, that we can take another blow from our enemies, dust ourselves off, and go on.

ABC News did some solid investigative reporting, but it didn't go far enough. It's one thing to tell people in primetime that U.S. ports are vulnerable. That's old news. The real story is that things are never going to be as secure as we would like them to be.

Deal with it.

R.G. Edmonson is the Washington correspondent for The Journal of Commerce Online. He can be reached at bedmonson@joc.com.