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Deficiencies in U.S. Screening of Cargo Are Acknowledged

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page A21

The failure to detect uranium shipped by a news organization through two U.S. ports revealed serious deficiencies in the federal government's system for screening cargo, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general reported yesterday.

Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin began the review of customs and border protection procedures at the request of House Democrats after ABC News twice successfully shipped about 15 pounds of depleted uranium into the country in cargo containers.

"Improvements are needed in the inspection process to ensure that weapons of mass destruction or other implements of terror do not gain access to the U.S. through oceangoing cargo containers," according to the four-page report made public yesterday.

ABC News said depleted uranium is a harmless substance that can be legally imported and gives off a radiation signature similar to that of highly enriched uranium, which is used for nuclear weapons. The network said it shipped the lead-encased uranium in a teak trunk, along with other furniture, from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Los Angeles last year. It shipped the same material from Europe to Staten Island, N.Y., in 2002.

Homeland Security officials have accused the network of breaking the law by making false declarations about the contents of the container in shipping documents.

Network officials have said that the shipments were an important test of the port security system, which screens about 5 percent of cargo containers for nuclear and radiological material.

Ervin reported that the department has improved its ability to screen targeted containers for radioactive emissions by deploying "more sensitive technology" and adopting "better procedures and training."

In a Wednesday letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, however, Rep. Jim Turner (Tex.), the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said that it is "worrisome" that Ervin was not satisfied with the officials' implementation of a "key recommendation" for correcting the problems. Turner requested the investigation, along with Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). A DHS official did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

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