LONG BEACH, Calif. - In Long Beach, a pair of gravity-defying suspension bridges links the city's trendy downtown area, all pastels and angles, with the dust and noise of its booming seaport-the nation's largest and the fifth-largest in the world. From one bridge with an aerial view of the mile-long Pier T, global trade numbers most of us only read about are transformed into millions of tons of moving steel.
Imagine a camera lens trained on a single royal-blue container that is the exact size and shape of a railroad car, and stamped "Seaco" on the side. Zoom out to see five containers stenciled with names like Hanjin, Maersk, and China Shipping, stacked up like giant Legos in faded green, brick, and gray. Pull back further to see 10, 50, 100 containers, then 500, thousands, stacked stories high and football-fields deep in colorful columns and rows, stretched along the wharfs, creeping along railroad tracks, and hanging from more than 70 gantry cranes that tower over the port's 15,000-acre complex like the skeletons of Imperial Walkers.
Now consider this: In two to three days, almost every box viewed through that lens will be gone, ferried into the U.S. interior by rail or truck. A like number of containers will take their place. Multiply by 50-the number of major U.S. ports-and the staggering scope of container security becomes clear: There are just too many containers to screen-and a terrorist needs only one.
It could be a routine Monday at the Port of Long Beach when U.S. inspectors detect an unusually high radiation signal coming from a shipping container that has just landed at Pier E. Thirty minutes later, before inspectors can isolate the signal source, a 10-kiloton nuclear blast incinerates the entire port, the adjoining Port of Los Angeles, and every ship in the immediate area. Soon, if not instantly, 60,000 people will die of radiation poisoning. Another 150,000 will require immediate medical attention, overwhelming the capacity of area emergency personnel and hospitals. And 6 million terrified survivors will try to evacuate greater Los Angeles.
That scenario has been making news as part of a recent "strategic gaming" study by the Rand Corporation, a frequent consultant to the U.S. government. With its potential to achieve the terrorist trifecta-bloody carnage, massive economic damage, and media flash-such an event would, of course, intrigue al-Qaeda.
That's why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Congress are focusing more attention on port and maritime security. With a 98-0 vote, the Senate on Sept. 14 passed the GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act (S. 2459), a companion bill to the SAFE Ports Act (H.R. 4954), which had already passed the House. The two bills must now be reconciled. Among other things, at $835 million a year, the legislation will increase security on rail systems that haul cargo away from ports and step up the screening of shipping containers.
Some 101 U.S. ports already are competing in "Round 6" of a port-security grant program authorized four years ago. The 2006 round bumped up funding to $175 million, a 17 percent increase over 2005. The GreenLane and SAFE Ports bills would hike the amount even further, to $400 million per year.
But Heritage Foundation security expert James Jay Carafano said such efforts are simply "throwing money at the problem" and top the list of What Not to Do about maritime security. "Congress has already dumped millions into these grants," said Carafano, noting that DHS already has found waste in existing grants. One Fortune 500 company with $1.2 billion in annual profits secured a grant just to build a fence. "Spending billions to turn U.S. ports into mini-Maginot Lines is a losing strategy."
Instead, some experts are recommending a holistic approach to port security that focuses less on beefing up bureaucracy and inspecting individual containers, and more on strengthening security measures across the global supply chain.
More than 360 ports serve the United States, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, accommodating everything from pleasure boats to barges, ferries, and ocean-going cargo and passenger ships. Today, 126 public seaport agencies operate along the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, and Great Lakes coasts, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to transfer cargo between ships, barges, trucks, and railroads.
More than half the U.S. population lives in close proximity to U.S. ports, making a major port attack potentially catastrophic. Meanwhile, think-tank reports on the economic magnitude of U.S. sea trade also brim with astronomical numbers: In 2002, the last year for which data are available, commercial port activities employed 1.1 million Americans, while another 3.8 million held jobs in export/import businesses and support industries. Waterborne commerce contributed $729 billion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and $44 billion to personal income. The industry also generated 2002 tax revenues of $16 billion, the American Association of Port Authorities reports.
Whereas the estimated economic costs of 9/11-including life insurance, real estate, workers' compensation, and infrastructure damage-range from $50 billion to $100 billion, the direct costs of a single nuclear attack on Long Beach would exceed $1 trillion, according to Rand.
And those are only the immediate and regional costs; the economic effect on trade could cripple the nation. Secondary effects "overwhelm primary damages," writes Stephen Cohen, a UC Berkeley professor, in a port security report issued this year by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Eight million to 15 million shipping containers (depending on whether you're counting the 20- or 40-foot kind) arrive in U.S. ports each year. Containers carry almost $500 billion into the country annually-$165 billion through California alone-according to the PPIC report. A single container weighs up to 30,000 pounds, a big container ship can offload 3,000 containers in just hours, and they do so across the country at a rate of about 27,000 per day.
Some policymakers are calling for 100 percent inspection of all containers entering U.S. ports, and the GreenLane bill "works toward the goal," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who co-authored the bill with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). But Heritage's Carafano calls the goal of 100 percent container screening "bipartisan stupidity."
As passed, the GreenLane bill begins by funding systems to scan 100 percent of cargo passing through three foreign ports. But more than 570 ports worldwide actually handle containerized cargo. And only 45 foreign ports allow U.S. customs officials to inspect containers.
Screening every container "would cost billions of dollars and drown authorities in useless information," Carafano said. Because of their number and the reliance on U.S. retailers of just-in-time inventory management, "to even inspect 3 percent of all containers coming into U.S. ports would bring global trade almost to a stop."
Port of Long Beach (POLB) public information officer Art Wong agrees. Security improvements at POLB "have attempted to balance the need to keep the economy strong by moving cargo through freely but securely," Wong said. Standing on the sunny observation deck that crowns the port authority's seven-story headquarters, he nodded toward the hulking cargo ships floating pier-side and the vast sea of shipping containers stacked on the terminal below. "We can't slow this thing down. It has to move."
U.S. ports themselves have no authority to open and inspect containers, said Wong. Instead, many operate like landlords. The companies that handle waterfront cargo are tenants. Port authorities provide secure land facilities, many of which were beefed up after 9/11. Wong said even the security standard for fences changed. Before the attacks, fences only had to be truck-proof; the top security worry was theft. With terrorism now also a top concern, fences must be people-proof, too.
Long Beach officials, like those at other major ports, coordinate security with local, state, and federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, harbor patrols, local police departments, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). At Long Beach, CBP inspectors can X-ray suspect containers and can also unseal and eyeball them. POLB now requires every container hauled away by truck to pass through a radiation scanner. By the end of the year, the requirement will also apply to boxes hauled out by train. The idea is to detect nuclear devices and materials; the downside is the proliferation of false positives generated by benign items such as kitty litter and bananas.
Security experts presume that any terrorist-packed containers would involve foreign jihadists. But the greatest threat to port security is not only from outside U.S. borders, it may come from rogue actors within. The Maritime Security Working Group, including experts from academia, research centers, the private sector, and government, in 2003 issued a report highlighting the threat posed by port employees intimately acquainted with operations and facilities, and with access to both. Now the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), beginning this year, requires name-based background checks on longshoremen and maritime employees of port facility owners and operators.
About 400,000 such inquiries were completed this summer, but "we definitely have a little bit of a way to go," said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser. Name-based screening should be complete by the end of the year. Then the program will begin bouncing employee names and fingerprints off criminal and immigration records, including the international terrorist watch list. Ultimately, all workers will require a biometrically encoded ID card for access to secure port areas. "In the coming weeks, TSA will issue a 'final rule' on how the card program will work," Kayser said.
In addition to the nuke-in-a-box scenario, the National Strategy for Maritime Security, issued a year ago this month by the Bush administration, identified other major port security threats:
- The use of explosives-laden suicide boats or light aircraft, or the employment of private, merchant, or commercial vessels as launch platforms for "stand-off" attacks using conventional or ballistic missiles.
- The deployment of underwater mines, which are cheap, easy to get, and difficult to detect.
- Terrorists partnering with seasoned maritime criminals, including arms dealers, drug smugglers, and human traffickers, who already move easily in and out of U.S. ports.
- Ports as entry points for environmental or biological attacks.
How to address the problems? Priority One, according to the Working Group, is beefing up the Coast Guard. Formerly a military branch operating under the Navy and transportation departments, the Coast Guard was folded into DHS after 9/11. It is the nation's principal maritime law enforcement agency and the lead federal agency for the maritime component of homeland security. Its cutters slice through the seas up to 50 miles off U.S. shores, evaluating, boarding, and inspecting commercial ships as they approach U.S. waters.
All ships headed for U.S. shores must notify the Coast Guard 96 hours in advance and provide the agency with detailed information about cargo, passengers, and crew. At the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, between 10 percent and 13 percent of the approximately 480 ships that arrive each month are boarded and inspected by the Coast Guard.
But the force's "deepwater" assets, which create the front line of a "layered" domestic defense, are aging, technologically obsolete, and prone to frequent system failures. The Working Group calls for full funding of Deepwater, a Coast Guard modernization program that has been underway since 1995. The federal government has contracted with Lockheed and Northrup-Grumman to provide an integrated domestic defense system that includes intelligence systems, aircraft, and three new classes of cutter ships.
The National Security Cutter, a military-strength 418-foot ship, will carry helicopters, intelligence collection and sharing systems (including unmanned aerial vehicles), and automated weapons, including a 57mm deck gun capable of creating a very bad day for thugs at sea. The first such ship, now more than 50 percent complete, will be christened this fall and delivered to the Coast Guard next year.
The Working Group recommended other supply-chain security improvements, such as special training for freight forwarders and middlemen, as well as a commercial security clearance for at least one person at each company in the supply chain. About 6,000 companies participate in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, a program that encourages private shippers to implement security measures on a voluntary basis.
Such companies become trusted shippers, and their containers are exempt from Customs and Border Patrol inspection. Meanwhile, companies new to the import/export business, as well as those from terrorist-harboring states, are subject to heightened scrutiny. The strategy, while necessary from a due-diligence standpoint, may be a little like setting rat traps in a sewer and hoping the rats are too stupid to travel by other means.
"If you were a self-respecting terrorist and you wanted to ship a nuke to Chicago, you would not label your shipment, 'This container comes from Afghanistan.' You'd lose your job," said Berkeley's Cohen. "What you'd probably do is get your paperwork in order and use a trusted shipper."
Cohen recommends a "layered" approach to shipping security that would include improved intelligence collection, as well as technologies such as mandatory in-port radiography scanning and in-box sensors that would detect suspect materials or tampering. He also advocates more stringent requirements for documenting container contents while conceding an unconquerable weakness: The accuracy of any shipping manifest depends on the truthfulness of the person doing the declaring.
"The guy who's loading the container decides what's going in and what to call it," Cohen said, noting the frequency with which narcotics, counterfeit designer goods, and fake BMW parts already land on American shores.
While experts and policymakers debate the best approaches to maritime security, there is one point on which all agree: Whatever damage terrorists can do, U.S. authorities are likely to multiply it exponentially unless they create a solid plan for minimizing self-inflicted post-attack damage. Within an hour of the 9/11 attacks, the FAA ordered a "national ground stop"-the cessation of all domestic air traffic departures-unprecedented in the history of U.S. aviation. The logical response to an attack on a U.S. seaport would be similar: a mandatory nationwide port closure.
In 2002, the prestigious Conference Board organized an economic-impact exercise that estimated the cost of a nationwide port closure of just eight days at $60 billion, not including losses from market panics or the impact on service industries such as airlines and hotels. The 2006 Rand strategic-gaming analysis, which looked at the effects of a nuclear attack at Long Beach, concluded that the demands of competing interests such as retailers, insurance companies, and government security agencies would create "reasonable" prospects for "extended closure of all U.S. ports"-a disastrous development that would echo around the globe.
The Working Group concluded that international cooperation would be required to "contain" the need to close seaports after an incident or attack and to "reboot" the shipping infrastructure quickly and efficiently.
In the meantime, major ports like Long Beach work with available resources. Over the past five years, Long Beach has spent $35 million in federal grant money to improve port surveillance, including installation of cameras, motion detectors, and infrared systems monitored by live security personnel. The amount is less than half of the $89 million the port requested. But since 9/11 was an airborne attack, the security priority for DHS and Congress "has been airports, not seaports," Wong said. "The [grant] amount pales in comparison to what the government is spending on airport security, and everybody agrees we need to do more."