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Perils of the Sea

10:22 AM, Jan 16, 2008 • By JAMES JAY CARAFANO
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Hong Kong
Americans tend to read the South China Post over their morning coffee when visiting Hong Kong. Yesterday's paper carried an unhappy story: a mainland cargo ship sank in high waves off Western Taiwan, leaving 12 seaman missing.

There is no question the sea is a harsh mistress. Bad things happen frequently in open waters--particularly to cargo containers. Sometimes the ship sinks. More often, containers get dropped over the side. Or crushed. Or pilfered.

Increasingly, containers are inspected--especially those ones identified under the Container Security Initiative. A post-9/11 program, CSI uses computers to analyze shipping and intelligence data and identify "high risk" cargo for inspection before the containers are put on ships bound for the United States.

All of the potential container mishaps--as well as the CSI inspections--are bad news when viewed from a terrorist's perspective. With all the things that can go wrong with shipping cargo (and we haven't even talked about unforeseen delays and misdeliveries) only an unthinking terrorist would consider using a shipping container as a poor man's missile or a pipeline for smuggling essential contraband into the United States.

Yes, ordinary criminals sometimes smuggle stuff in containers--everything from fake Gucci to hard drugs. But that's because they have so much product and such large profit margins they don't care if they lose half to Customs or storms at sea.

So if smuggling weapons in containers is such a bad idea, and if CSI works pretty well, and it is getting better all the time, why did Congress last year require inspection of all containers bound for the United States--an unworkable mandate that is likely to cost the global economy billions? Maybe they didn't think it through as thoroughly as terrorist do. Or maybe they were playing politics--looking for bumper stickers to win votes rather than real security to fight terrorism.