Declaring a nuclear or radiological attack one of the greatest terrorism threats facing the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Friday that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would soon be equipped with large radiation detection portals to screen all international containers entering the nation's busiest port complex.
Wrapping up a two-day visit to Los Angeles, Chertoff said the radiation monitors would begin operating at three terminals within the Port of Los Angeles by the end of the month. Ninety of the towering detection devices would be in place at the Los Angeles/Long Beach complex by the end of the year, he said.
Just weeks ago, the Port of Oakland became the first in the nation to be outfitted with the radiation monitors, which are large enough for container trucks to drive through.
"We all know that one of the greatest threats we face in this country is the possibility of a nuclear or radiological attack, which would be devastating in its consequences," Chertoff said at Fire Station 112 in San Pedro. "Obviously, one of our top priorities at the Department of Homeland Security is to prevent that kind of attack. And a key element of that strategy is detection. We have to know that something is coming in so we can intercept it."
Chertoff said the detection portals would enable authorities to screen vehicles and containers entering the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle more than 40% of the 9 million containers shipped into the U.S. each year.
Increasingly, national security experts have warned that the nation must do more to safeguard ports and inspect cargo shipments before they reach U.S. waters and docks.
"This is a major, major problem for the nation," Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp., told an international conference at the think tank's Santa Monica headquarters Thursday.
A recent Government Accountability Office audit found significant shortcomings in cargo security procedures put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
One homeland security program launched to inspect all U.S.-bound cargo at foreign ports had managed to cover only 65% of the shipments because the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has not had enough staff at some overseas ports, the audit found.
Foreign governments asked to help in cargo inspections under another U.S. initiative failed to screen 28% of the containers forwarded to them, the GAO concluded.
The government audit also found significant problems with a program launched in November 2001 to prescreen shipping companies to expedite the flow of goods they carry into U.S. ports. Although the U.S. government hoped to complete security checks of all of the eligible shippers, terminal operators and other companies by last fall, the audit found that nearly 90% of them still had not undergone the screening envisioned by homeland security officials.
At a brief news conference that followed his announcement, Chertoff initially downplayed the significance of the GAO's findings, saying it was not unusual for new programs to experience delays in reaching goals.
But he later acknowledged that he was "disturbed" that such important homeland security initiatives were falling short of expectations.
"There is no question that when we screen something and it hits the level where it requires us to do an inspection, it needs to be inspected," Chertoff said. "And to the extent we need to work with our overseas partners to make sure the inspections get done, that is obviously a very high priority."
U.S. Rep Jane Harman (D-Venice), who accompanied Chertoff, went even further.
"These programs reviewed by the GAO are very good ideas but they are not working well," she said. "And the challenge is to have a good implementation of these programs because we risk failure if our first real effort at inspections is at the ports. That is just too late."
Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, earlier noted that the massive Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport had been the site of security breaches that could have been exploited by terrorists. In two separate incidents, dozens of Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the ports inside giant shipping containers.
"Maybe next time the stowaways won't be seeking a better life -- maybe they will be terrorists," said Harman, who was joined at the event by other lawmakers including House Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who was nominated Thursday as the new chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
During the news conference, Chertoff said his department had no official opinion on a proposal to build the West Coat's first onshore liquefied natural gas terminal in the Port of Long Beach, which will come before Long Beach harbor commissioners Tuesday. Chertoff said the federal government would offer scientific findings on the safety and operation of such a facility but no recommendation on whether it should be built.
Chertoff's port tour came one day after he visited Los Angeles International Airport, greeting security screeners at its busy international terminal and examining new technologies in explosives detection.
Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.