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A Security Gap at U.S. Ports

November 03, 2002

Shipping containers reaching to the sky blot out views of the ocean on Terminal Island, heart of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Inside each are 15 or more tons of copying machines and pajamas, dolls and televisions from virtually every port on the globe. And what else?

The mass of scraped and dented red, blue and green metal boxes waiting to be set by cranes on the rail cars or 18-wheelers that will carry them into America's cities is greater than usual because of shipping lines' 10-day lockout of port workers that ended more than three weeks ago. That closure damaged the national economy. But a new report from a high-powered panel concludes that the stacked containers also are emblematic of a greater danger -- the nation's failure to adequately prepare for another terrorist attack more than a year after 9/11.

Six months before hijackers seized four aircraft, former Sens. Gary Hart, a Democrat, and Warren B. Rudman, a Republican, warned that terrorists were likely to strike on American soil and that the country was unprepared.

This year they were joined on a panel by two former secretaries of State and two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plus business executives and scientists. This group, too, is worried.

Its report, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil." Such an attack, the report adds, would cause "even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy." Add another war with Iraq and the threat that Saddam Hussein would try to use chemical or biological weapons in America, and the group concludes that the need for action is more urgent still.

The panel members aren't alone in trying quietly to bring attention to this alarming vulnerability. CIA Director George J. Tenet recently advised Congress that Al Qaeda "intends to strike us both here and overseas." The new Hart-Rudman report prods the federal government to share its anti-terror intelligence with local and state police. It urges better training of police, fire and emergency medical personnel in responding to chemical or biological attacks and proposes that Congress give more money to National Guard units to support homeland security plans drawn up by the states.

One of the report's more striking findings is how pathetically little money the government spends addressing the potentially debilitating flaws in port security. Screening of airport passengers and their luggage costs about $200 million a month and will go even higher when airports begin X-raying all checked baggage. Compare that with the federal government's initial appropriation last year of just $93 million, later supplemented by $125 million, for security at more than 300 U.S. ports around the country. For the year.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle 43% of the maritime containers coming into this country. After 9/11, the two sought $70 million in federal grants for security but only got about $6 million.

Federal agencies responsible for port security, including the Customs Service, Coast Guard and Immigration and Naturalization Service, recognize the extent of the problem. The Customs Service has launched a program with governments such as Canada, Singapore, China and the Netherlands to inspect and seal containers before they are put aboard ships. If inspectors in the United States find that someone has tampered with the seals, they can open and search them.

With more than 6 million containers entering the country each year, and inspections tying up five people for three hours for a single container, only a tiny fraction can be inspected. So someone has to evaluate the containers and ships for danger. If shipping companies can vouch for the contents of containers before they leave port and technology can determine whether a shipment has been diverted to a suspicious location before resuming its journey, the risk can be reduced.

Shippers may have to pay more, as will the Wal-Marts and J.C. Penneys that sell the goods. That means a higher price for consumers as well -- a few cents more an item to minimize the danger that one of those containers dangling from a crane in Long Beach will someday contain a jar of anthrax or a suitcase-size nuclear bomb.

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