During an interview in August, he gave ABCNEWS the same demonstration he said he had given to President Bush when he visited the port. McCabe displayed the small radiation pager used by inspectors, which he said could detect even a shielded, low-level radiation shipment — like depleted uranium.
In addition, the customs inspector demonstrated a second screening device, an X-ray scanning machine on wheels, used on suspect containers to detect even small items.
"The inspector should see [that] even if it's something small, [of] unusual density, unusual something … would lead us to strip that container and look," said McCabe.
"If we can't tell exactly what is in that container by those screenings, we're going to get into that container and find out for ourselves."
And while the shipping container holding ABCNEWS' suitcase was selected by customs for this kind of screening, it sailed right through the inspection and left the port without ever being opened by customs inspectors. And a few days after its arrival in the United States, the container was on the back of a truck headed for New York City.
Customs Defends Detection Capabilities
Bonner, the customs commissioner, says his inspectors correctly singled out the container for screening and would have detected anything truly dangerous.
"We ran it for radiation detection and we also did a large-scale X-ray," he said. "Nothing appeared that would indicate that there was a potential for a nuclear device to be in the container."
When asked why a large piece of metal in the shipment of Turkish horse carts didn't stand out, Bonner responded, "Well, look I'm not gonna get into it … We have the X-ray pictures."
Bonner refused to show ABCNEWS what the Customs Service saw on the X-ray scans taken by its equipment. But when ABCNEWS later put the suitcase through a much less sophisticated X-ray machine, the outline of the depleted uranium in its shielded casing was clear. It looked like a pipe bomb was inside.
The experts ABCNEWS consulted say that with the screening devices custom officials said they used on the shipping container, without opening the crate there would be no way for customs inspectors to know whether the material was the low-level, safe, depleted uranium of the kind used by ABCNEWS in this investigation, or the highly enriched, dangerous uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.
"If you didn't detect this, you wouldn't have detected … the real thing," said Cochran. "[Bonner] missed it and he's covering up."
Cochran says the ABCNEWS test demonstrated an important shortcoming of the customs screening process — that the radiation pagers are essentially useless unless the pager is placed right on top of the radioactive material. "U.S. Customs absolutely … missed it," he said.
‘We Are Not Safe’
Finally, the container was taken to a New York Port Authority warehouse on Pier No. 1, just across the river from lower Manhattan, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
When the crate was pulled out, it was easy to see it had never been opened since leaving Istanbul.
Port Authority police are assigned to this warehouse facility, but there are no radiation detectors there and no one asked about the unusual shipment in a container full of Turkish horse carts.
"If that were a weapon and you blew it up, you would have very, very substantial consequences," said Allison.
The material ABCNEWS moved was not dangerous and entirely legal to transport.
"You provided an illustration, a vivid illustration of the fact that this could happen tomorrow," Allison said. "We are not safe. Not safe from that."