As America steps up measures to secure its ports, customs officials are now working with their counterparts in Europe to scan container cargo for terrorist material before it reaches the U.S.
Preventing terrorists from entering the United States ranks highest on the agenda of America's international war against terror.
A U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation report released in May noted that terrorists and their weapons had successfully infiltrated the country concealed in shipping containers.
In a preemptive measure to stop any further terrorists from getting into the country, U.S. Customs Service experts are currently cooperating with European port authorities in France, Belgium and Holland. U.S. government officials are also negotiating with Berlin to extend the cooperation to German harbors.
Germany's Federal Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for customs regulations, told the newsmagazine
Der Spiegel that the countries are currently negotiating an increased cooperative relationship. However, a spokesman for the ministry said no agreement has been reached yet.
Stepped up security
In the aftermath of September 11, American politicians proposed providing customs inspectors at ports with additional training to help them ferret out containers that might be storing chemical or biological weapons. They are also seeking to send inspectors to facilities abroad, including those in Europe.
New x-ray scanners, which cost $10 million (10.15 million euro) a piece, can penetrate even densely packed containers and can be programmed to detect explosive or radioactive materials. U.S. Customs has also developed software that can flag suspicious cargo based on its origin and route.
A trend towards European cooperation
The U.S. has already secured permission to station specially trained American customs officials in three large European ports in the coming weeks. The agreement, announced last week, will first involve the ports of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Antwerp in Belgium and Le Havre in France.
Rotterdam, the world’s largest seaport, was the first European harbor to agree to the arrangement. Rotterdam already has its own system in place for risk analysis of the more than 400 million containers that pass through in a year. Rotterdam's Europoort will now buttress its own program by adding U.S. expertise and the U.S. Customs database.
Officials are optimistic about the cooperation. "We're basically fine-tuning the system," Renee Wesdorp, a spokeswoman for Dutch customs told the
New York Times. "We'll start with a six-month pilot project and then see if it's useful to continue."
Finding a needle in a haystack
If German officials agree to participate, the most likely test port would be Bremerhaven, located near the northern German city Bremen.
There, customs inspectors face the same challenges as their American counterparts. At Bremerhaven, inspectors have the overall capacity to inspect only one percent of the containers being processed,
Der Spiegel reported.
While the American government continues to allocate special funding to increase port security, German customs officials still operate on tighter budgets.
Officials at Bremerhaven fear that adding additional freight to the volume it already checks could dramatically increase costs and reduce the port's competitiveness.
Mainly exchange of information
"What it’s going to amount to is mainly an exchange of information," Arne Petrick, a customs officer in Hamburg, told
But Petrick told the magazine it was unlikely the U.S. would be permitted to partake in actual patrols at German harbors because of Germany's strict tax secrecy laws, which forbid making data about the contents of freight available to third parties. Additionally, the two countries will have to negotiate how to fund the increase in personnel and equipment upgrades cooperation would require.
A vulnerable position
Fears of terrorists stowing away on freighter ships are well grounded. In October, Italian customs discovered an Egyptian man with suspected al Qaeda ties in a container bound for Canada.