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Balancing act

"Balancing act" Continued...

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

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.

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