Murphy's Law: Pandora's Box


November 18,2008: The search for terrorists at seaports and air ports has failed to find many, but the effort has caught a lot of other criminals. Increased airport security has snagged all sorts of criminals, and criminal activity. Smugglers in particular have been hard hit. Same thing has occurred at seaports.

For example, ever since September 11, 2001, there has been much fear that terrorists would use the 25 million freight containers moving round the world, to move bombs, or the terrorists themselves. Over eight million containers pass through the United States each year, and currently only a few percent of them get any kind of inspection. But one of the more effective tools for checking containers is a portable X-ray machine that scans entire containers at once.

Checking containers this way has revealed that these large metal boxes are already being used to smuggle all sorts of stuff (and people). Some of this smuggling was already known, but the closer counter-terrorism experts look, the more non-terrorist smuggling they discover.

The problem is that the container using smugglers don't really care about what they are paid to move through the global shipping container system. The attitude seems to be, you pay me the money and I will move the goods. While no smuggler wants to get involved with terrorists (which would bring down more police heat that is safe for a smuggler), it was believed that it would be relatively easy for a terrorist to pass himself off as just another criminal wanting to move goods illegally into the United States. However, it appears that the smugglers have been keeping their distance from terrorists. Part of that is because the new inspections, especially those using the X-ray device, have got the smugglers scrambling to find better ways to hide what they are trying to sneak in via cargo container. For decades, the smugglers had a great time by simply mislabeling containers. There were few physical inspections, and in most ports, a large bribe could take care of any problems if your shipment was caught by accident (a container had an accident and broke open) or was selected for some kind of random physical inspection. But the X-ray machines have inspired port authorities to try and put a real dent in the smuggling. This is partly inspired by media interest in the new X-ray machines (which cost up to a million dollars each) and the known capabilities of these beasts. So the bribes aren't as effective as they used to be (too much risk of the media finding out), and a lot more illegal shipments are getting caught.

Still no terrorists in sight.


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