High-Seas Hunting: Can terrorists slip a nuke into a U.S. port? Inside the Customs op to prevent them

North Korea can export missile and nuclear technology to the highest bidder. It’s a capitalist practice,” a North Korean spokesman told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last October. Was the North Korean official making a bad joke? U.S. officials have to take the threat seriously, especially now that Pyongyang has announced that it will restart its nuclear program, possibly to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The idea of North Korea’s peddling plutonium is scary enough. Just as unnerving is evidence, confirmed last week by U.S. intelligence, that Iran has begun to secretly build two plants, one to enrich uranium, the other to make “heavy water,” that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

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If, in a worst-case scenario, terrorists succeed in buying (or stealing) a bomb from an outlaw or radical Islamic state, they could try to slip it into the United States by sea. Every day, some 16,000 cargo containers arrive in American ports. It would be relatively easy for terrorists to hide a nuclear device inside an unmarked, sealed container. What’s to stop them?

Right now, the best hope rests in a long, narrow room in a nondescript Washington building, occupied by 10 or so U.S. Customs officials peering at computer screens. The so-called National Targeting Center has the difficult job of trying to figure out which of the 6 million containers entering U.S. ports every year might be hiding weapons of mass destruction. (A handwritten scrawl on a message board underscores the enormity of the task: find Osama.) As of earlier this month, a new rule requires every shipping company carrying cargo to the United States to provide Customs with advance information on every container on their ships. Aided by online intelligence provided by the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and Coast Guard, U.S. Customs officials grade each container from zero (no risk) to 300 (highest risk). Containers scoring above 190 are supposed to be inspected by local officials before they are loaded on ships bound for American ports. “It’s too late if it reaches the United States,” says Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner.

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Will the system work? Much depends on the good faith and care of foreign officials. The United States has signed agreements with countries operating the 18 largest seaports handling U.S.-bound cargo. U.S. inspectors are on station in the Netherlands, France and Canada, but the real burden rests with the locals (not all of whom are incorruptible) in most ports around the world. Still, U.S. intelligence is getting better at ferreting out suspect cargoes. It is encouraging that the United States was able to track a North Korean ship carrying missiles to Yemen last week–even though, after protests from the Yemeni government, the ship and its cargo were released. The super secret National Security Agency can follow ships with spy satellites, as well as intercept phone calls and radio signals. It was probably the NSA, working with the CIA and the U.S. Navy, that found the freighter with the Scud missiles hidden under bags of cement. (A Spanish frigate intercepted the ship.)

In Washington, the National Targeting Center also checks airline passenger lists looking for potential terrorists. Last spring an alert Customs analyst spotted the garbled name of Jose Padilla on the manifests of flights from Cairo to Chicago via Zurich. The CIA had lost track of Padilla, who was allegedly recruited by Al Qaeda to explore the possibility of setting off a “dirty bomb,” a crude radiological device, in an American city. Padilla is now in U.S. military custody. If rogue states are willing to sell weapons-grade plutonium, it may take the same thoroughness–and not a little luck–to stop terrorists from smuggling a dirty bomb or a full-fledged nuclear weapon into the United States.

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