Features

Balancing act

National Security | With U.S. seaports ranked among top terror targets, experts debate how to secure shipping without slowing trade

Issue: "Street theater," Sept. 30, 2006

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.

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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.

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