Features

Balancing act

"Balancing act" Continued...

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

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.

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