Homeland Insecurity

Homeland Insecurity: Ports in a Storm

20 million cargo containers pass through U.S. ports every year. But only a small fraction is adequately screened for dirty bombs or other terrorist threats. Part four in a series on the lessons of 9/11.

| Mon Sep. 10, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

It would be virtually impossible to effectively police all of the United States' 12,375 miles of coastline. Though politicians talk a good game about sealing the borders against terrorists, there will always be a lonely stretch of beach in Oregon or Georgia, an inlet on the twisting southern Alaskan coastline or a landing in Puerto Rico that's been left to the seashells and sand crabs and whatever washes up on the shore.

What the government can do, and should do, is get serious about monitoring the country's 361 ports, which in 2004 handled some 20 million ocean containers. These ports are inextricably linked to the 2,600 commercial ports that exist across the globe, especially the 575 that also handle international shipping containers.

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The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency attempts to inspect cargo before it reaches our shores per its Container Security Initiative (CSI), which makes use of radiation detection technology to screen "high-risk containers before they are shipped to U.S. ports." Mainly, efforts are focused on catching nuclear devices and other explosives. According to customs documentation, the program is a great success. The Initiative, cooperation with which is voluntary, "is now operational at ports in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin and Central America. CBP's 52 operational CSI ports now make approximately 90 percent of all transatlantic and transpacific cargo imported into the United States subject to prescreening prior to importation."

Unfortunately, a recent study suggests the figure should not be 90 percent, but more like 5 or 6 percent. That's because prescreening doesn't necessarily mean all that much, often simply analyzing general information or checking intelligence in an effort to identify high-risk cargo. When it comes to actual hands-on inspections, the number of checked containers drops significantly. Some critics count the CSI as next to useless: Before Congress in March last year, Stephen Flynn, the former Coast Guard commander and antiterrorist expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out a potential real-life scenario that exposed enormous flaws in the Initiative. Let's say a big-name company produces a huge pile of sneakers in Indonesia. These sneakers are packed into a container, its door locked tight, not to be opened until the shoes arrive in the United States for distribution in various malls. The container is picked up at an Indonesian loading dock by a truck driver with Al Qaeda sympathies. The driver heads for the docks, scooting into a back alley along the way. In the alley, he stops, pries open the lock, and dumps out some of the sneakers to make room for a package containing a dirty nuke wrapped in lead to avoid detection. The door is closed and re-padlocked and the driver continues on his way to the docks, where the container is loaded onto a coastal feeder ship along with 300 other containers.

As Flynn's ominous scenario plays out, the ship leaves port. It is a coastal freighter, plying Indonesian waters and docking in Jakarta. There, its many containers, including the one holding the bomb, are transferred onto a large Inter-Asia ship that heads for Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the containers are transferred once again, this time to a huge super ship that typically carries 5,000 to 8,000 containers. So far, because the sneaker manufacturer is a trusted business and participates in the government's antiterror program, nobody has thought to inspect it. The ship sets sail for Vancouver, British Columbia. There, too, the container slides past inspection officials for the same reason: because the shoes are from a trusted brand name and made by a company that has joined the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Next, the container is loaded onto a freight train that carries the bomb to its final destination, a distribution center in Chicago. There, someone opens the container, triggering a mechanism attached to the door. The bomb blows up.

As Flynn points out, there is a practical way to improve our odds of catching bombs and other problem cargo before it is delivered to our shores. It entails collecting basic data—where it comes from, its contents, where it is headed—about each container specifically, even those from heretofore sacrosanct trusted companies,and then unobtrusively adding to the manifest results from a radiation detection machine. Thus when hardened intelligence warns of a bomb in the pipeline, U.S. officials have the chance to locate a particular ship at sea and reroute it.

Tightening port security, of course, would require new ID papers for the tens of thousands of truckers who work along America's piers. And that in and of itself would create new tangles, according to one longshore official I spoke with. For example, if every ID application was forwarded to the FBI, where information was entered into a database accessible by other federal (and state and local) agencies, then the numerous truck drivers who are illegal aliens would immediately start producing phony papers or figure out how to avoid the process altogether.

In addition, unions are protesting the use of mobile X-ray machines, which are set up on docks to check containers. When loaded trucks pass through a portal of the Mobile Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (Mobile VACIS), the machine uses gamma rays to inspect their containers. Customs, which operates the detectors, insists that the beam—which many believe to be harmful—is only switched on once the truck cab has passed the apparatus. But "even after safety demonstrations, West Coast longshore workers line up their trucks and get out of their vehicles to stand 100 feet away while the Mobile VACIS does its job," reports Pier Pressure, a periodical produced by the reform Longshore Workers' Coalition. "The scatter effect of the Cesium and Cobalt 137 particles, which are the rays used in the Mobile VACIS, continues to concern West Coast union officials."

Whether any of the procedures recommended by Flynn and others actually will be utilized is the big question. Will the U.S. and other governments act? Will the shipping industry and port authorities get behind these ideas? So far, aside from serious improvements at a handful of ports, efforts have mainly been of the verbal variety.

Tomorrow: The federal government's waning commitment.

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