Porous at the Ports

Security at America’s entry points has been a national-security focus since 9/11. With no major incidents to report, have we been good or just lucky?

Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Zac Crawford
Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Zac Crawford

A few years ago, a group of shipping containers set off radiation detectors at ports in Seattle, New York and other U.S. cities. Customs and Border Protection officers investigated and discovered the cargo – manhole covers – contained hazardous levels of Cobalt 60. Some were seized, some were sent back, and those that had not yet arrived were turned away.The incident demonstrates both success at improving port security in the long shadow of 9/11 and sizeable gaps that remain. Radiation monitors detected a problem with the manhole covers. CBP officers, working with the U.S. Department of Energy, stopped them before they could be distributed across the United States. A sophisticated targeting system pinpointed containers still at sea and prevented their delivery. The case of the confiscated manhole covers also shows how easily terrorists could bring bombs or other weapons to our shores. Ideally, CBP officers stationed overseas, working with shipping companies and foreign authorities, would have stopped such hazardous freight from being loaded onto U.S.-bound ships in the first place. If one of the containers full of manhole covers had carried a nuclear weapon, a terrorist could simply have detonated it somewhere near the U.S. port to bring global shipping to a standstill. “The seaport is a most ideal civilian target because we concentrate a lot of people around ports, and we cram a lot of critical infrastructure – such as refineries and electrical grids –around that space,” says retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen Flynn, who served as an adviser to presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “We have a lot more security than we had on 9/11. But we haven’t done as much as we should, given the level of vulnerability that remains and the consequences that will erupt if terrorists take advantage of that vulnerability.”Adds Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank: “My conclusion is not that we are really good, but that we have been really lucky. We clearly need to put a system in place that prevents the really bad stuff from ever getting here.”There have been many high-profile changes in the way the United States deals with maritime shipping since 9/11. Port security has become a higher priority for the Coast Guard than at any time since World War II. Congress finally started funding long-overdue replacement of its aging ship and aircraft fleet and increased the Coast Guard’s ranks by more than 1,100. Customs, Immigration and the Border Patrol were combined into a super border-protection agency under the new Department of Homeland Security. CBP officers focused solely on terrorism now are stationed in 58 foreign ports that handle roughly 85 percent of ocean-going cargo shipped to the United States. Every container that arrives on a foreign ship is scanned for radiation. If something appears awry, it is scanned again with a hand-held monitor that identifies the particular radioactive isotope. CBP officers determine if the isotope is routine – such as Potassium 40, common in porcelain toilets – or something more dangerous. The hand-held monitor is so sensitive that a person undergoing chemotherapy treatment will set it off. Meanwhile, police, Coast Guard and CBP officers at the Port of Seattle wear small radiation detectors, adding another layer of screening.Some containers undergo an additional X-ray-type scan designed to detect unusually dense objects, such as lead shielding, that might be used to hide a nuclear device from radiation monitors. Less than 1 percent of the 11 million containers that arrive in the United States each year are physically unpacked and inspected down to the last plastic trinket, T-shirt or DVD player because of the expense and the disruption to freight traffic. “We went from scratch to developing this,” Goure says. “The problem is, you have so many targets out there, and you can’t inspect all of the ships and containers and bulk cargo. So you have to reduce it to a manageable number.” Since 9/11, most ports have fenced their perimeters, installed security cameras and hired guards. A Transportation Worker Identification Card is required for port access. A detailed federal background check is conducted before any TWIC card is issued.  The pace of port-security improvements, however, is slow. Congress called for background checks and fingerprinting of more than 1 million dockworkers, truck drivers and merchant sailors as part of the Marine Transportation Security Act of 2002. The program finally became mandatory in April. The agencies charged with protecting the ports and scrutinizing cargo are understaffed and underfunded considering the breadth of their responsibilities. Once containers arrive in the United States, CBP officers enforce more than 400 rules and regulations for other federal agencies, ranging from the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As one Customs official put it, “Our staffing and resources haven’t been keeping up with the increase in global trade for 35 years.”Many of the post-9/11 port-security measures are based on trust and good will rather than oversight and verification.The so-called Automated Targeting System – which reviews shipper manifests 24 hours before containers are loaded in foreign ports – relies on the veracity of the shipper. “I still have deep concerns,” Flynn says. “It’s obvious an adversary isn’t going to fill out the information correctly.” Ships also remain on the honor system for reporting to the Coast Guard at least 96 hours before arrival the names of their crews, their cargo and their last five ports of call.Customs established the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Program designed to reduce cargo scrutiny for shippers who implement more rigorous protection measures. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly found flaws in the program, including the fact that it allows companies to monitor their own efforts and self-report the results, without regular follow-up inspections by outside agencies. “Clearly, you need to have a far more stringent quality-control mechanism,” says Robbie Friedmann, Georgia State University professor of criminal justice and distinguished chair of public safety partnerships. “This includes random checks, just like the health department performs at restaurants.”Although its work is considered excellent, the Coast Guard’s task list is complicated and exhaustive. It has 11 separate missions, from rescuing distressed boaters to intercepting drug smugglers and providing waterborne security for everything from presidential visits to Super Bowls and the Olympics. Many Coast Guard ships are more than 40 years old, and federal money for replacements has been sluggish. Physically inspecting the contents of suspicious containers also poses risks for the cities that surround many ports. Containers tagged for such scrutiny at the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach are trucked 12 miles through a densely populated area to an inspection facility. In Seattle, such containers are moved anywhere from two to 30 miles through heavy commuter traffic to one of three inspection warehouses.“If that contains a chemical or a biological weapon, do you really want to move it?” Goure asks. State and local governments that own the ports and private companies that lease and operate the freight terminals also work with law-enforcement agencies to provide security – strengthening communications, coordination and law enforcement. Meanwhile, some ports say the post-9/11 security requirements are a staggering financial burden. “One of the biggest security expenses (for ports) is paying personnel who guard their facilities,” explains Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities. While Congress has appropriated more than $2 billion in port-security grants since 2002, it’s far from sufficient and generally cannot be used for ongoing expenses, such as wages and long-term security equipment maintenance.“The irony is that we, the American people, have been willing to expend enormous resources to conduct the conventional war on terrorism,” Flynn says. “Since the spring of 2003, we’ve spent about $330 million a day on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, the total amount of spending on security at the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach since Sept. 11 has been a little over $100 million.”Corruption also threatens security in some ports. The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, which also is responsible for the docks in New Jersey, squandered more than $700,000 in federal Homeland Security grants and undermined efforts designed to thwart terrorists, according to the New York State inspector general. For example, a boat purchased with a $170,000 federal grant to protect the port from a waterborne attack instead was used to ferry big shots to special events.   Many see such imbalances as examples of unwieldy bureaucracy interfering with effective domestic security. “There is no carefully constructed apparatus for keeping America safe,” says Flynn, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What the Obama administration has inherited is a flimsy façade of homeland security behind which lies a deeply flawed structure, a badly broken Department of Homeland Security and a nation that remains dangerously unprepared to respond to large-scale catastrophic events.” He says the administration must “act aggressively” to fix it quickly.The focus on containers – long-exploited by organized crime to move illegal immigrants, drugs and contraband into the United States – is important. Most experts agree that terrorists are more likely to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the United States than they are to launch a nuclear missile.Container shipping is hardly the only problem. Air cargo receives far less scrutiny because it’s more sensitive to time delays. The nation’s just-in-time energy delivery system also is an attractive target. Roughly half the crude oil that comes into the western United States is delivered to the port at Long Beach by ship. If an explosives-laden speedboat rammed an oil tanker there, it would take months to clear the port, Flynn says.“You are talking about 30 days to bring a salvage ship from Singapore or heavy-lift equipment from the Gulf region through the Panama Canal,” says Flynn, who recommends the Navy move one of its large salvage vessels from Norfolk, Va., to the West Coast. “Everything points to a profound disruption.”This drives home another important point: ports must have the means for resuming business as soon as possible after a potential terrorist strike. “Every major facility should have a plan in place to recover quickly,” Flynn says. “The more resilient we are as a society, the less consequence an act of terrorism would be – and the less attractive it would be for terrorists to engage in.”  Port-security experts say there are other ways to immediately lower the odds of a successful terrorist attack. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has access to more advanced nuclear and biological weapons sensors but has been slow to deploy them, Goure says. Ports also need well-equipped bomb squads to deal with conventional explosives instead of having to wait for outside help to arrive. The Port of Seattle Police, home to the regional bomb squad, is a notable exception.Finally, the United States must expand its capability to track shipping. “We need an all-seeing eye on everything that travels across the ocean so that if a ship does something strange – stops off the coast of North Korea for two days – we know about it,” Goure says. “We want to do the same thing for the oceans that we do for air space in the United States.”Closer to home, one element of this includes installing transponders on all boats instead of only requiring them on ships 300 gross tons and larger. Most recreational boaters resist the idea as much too intrusive.“It’s not an issue of Big Brother,” says Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil. “It’s an issue of knowing who is operating on our waterways ... The most successful attacks generally involve smaller vessels laden with explosives.”In the end, port security has a long way to go, experts note. “Our current and future adversaries are going to want to target something that will cause major disruption and kill a lot of people,” Flynn says. “That will continue to make seaports an attractive target.” Ken Olsen is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.

 

tlhollingsworth

January 29, 2010 - 1:31pm

My dad, a naval vet from WWII, is an American Legion member who reads your magazine faithfully. At 83, he tends to take most things in stride . However, he made a special trip to my house (in 20 degree weather with snow on the roads)to show me the photo on page 31 and express his disgust. What upset him? Take a look at our US Coast Guard escort - it's sporting a Japanese motor! They say a picture's worth a thousand words - well this sums up perfectly the reason for our economic conditions.

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