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FIVE YEARS AFTER | Moving Ahead, Guardedly

Danger Abides at L.A.'s Ports

Despite millions spent on security, experts see the vast complex as a vulnerable target.

September 11, 2006|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

In the five years since the attacks of Sept. 11, the vast ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have been included on most lists of likely terrorist targets.

California's attorney general ranks them third and sixth respectively on a roster of 624 possible targets in the state.

And despite millions of dollars spent bolstering security in the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor complex since Sept. 11, maritime security experts, government officials and shipping industry leaders say the security risks are still huge.

Tightening port security, they say, has proved complicated. Not only have costs been daunting, shippers have been extremely wary of anti-terrorist measures that would slow port operations.

As a result, significant improvements are still needed to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming reality in the nation's largest seaport.

"In terms of maritime security, have people done things? Yes," said retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen E. Flynn, a consultant and expert on port security. "But are we keeping pace with terrorists' capabilities and the potential consequences five years after 9/11? The answer is no."

The problem is partly one of scope. Together, the ports handle more than 40% of containerized cargo shipped to and from the United States. Adjacent refineries fed by marine oil terminals produce a quarter of the gasoline and other petroleum products consumed west of the Rocky Mountains. Almost a million people live in cities immediately surrounding the harbor area.

If terrorists were to explode a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb in the Port of Long Beach, Rand Corp. researchers recently calculated, it could kill 60,000 people instantly, expose 150,000 more to hazardous levels of radiation and result in more than $1 trillion in economic losses, at least 10 times the financial loss in the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center five years ago.

A key vulnerability, Flynn and others say, remains the ubiquitous cargo container, the mainstay of international commerce and a potential Trojan horse in the age of terrorism.

There are concerns that too few containers are inspected, both in the U.S. and at foreign ports where they are loaded.

Federal studies show that radiation detectors used to scan containers on the docks have limited effectiveness and that evacuation and recovery plans for both ports are not fully developed.

Whatever the shortcomings, local officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency say they are confident that current security measures serve as a deterrent to terrorists.

They note that no attacks have occurred in local ports since Sept. 11 and that authorities have successfully intervened in a number of suspicious incidents.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Wiedenhoeft, who is in charge of security efforts in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, said several arriving cargo ships had been barred from the harbors for failing to supply the Coast Guard with required information about their crews, cargo and passengers.

Because the ships sailed away without trying to comply with requirements, Wiedenhoeft said, they were subject to further investigation. He declined to provide details, citing national security.

"Hopefully, the fact that nothing has occurred is a reflection on the work our agencies are doing, that our efforts are making it difficult for terrorists to be successful," said Kevin W. Weeks, director of local field operations for the Customs and Border Protection Agency.

Still, securing both ports is a daunting task. The equivalent of 7 million 40-foot cargo containers pass through the harbor complex each year, including inbound, outbound, foreign and domestic. There are about 15,000 acres of marine terminals, warehouses, private marinas, pipelines, rail facilities and waterways, easily accessible from land and sea.

Whatever is done to guard the complex must provide security without significantly impeding the enormous flow of cargo.

To accomplish that goal, local Homeland Security officials say, they have developed a "layered" security system over the last five years. Rather than search all U.S.-bound containers at considerable cost, authorities evaluate cargo using a profile designed to single out suspicious shipments for inspection.

The process begins overseas, where foreign shippers must provide the U.S. customs agency with cargo and crew manifests 24 hours before U.S.-bound containers are loaded onto a vessel. The manifests are analyzed along with intelligence about terrorist activities to determine which shipments might pose a risk, and some containers are earmarked for inspection upon arrival in the U.S.

Some 6,000 companies participating in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which encourages private businesses to tighten their security voluntarily, are exempted from having their containers inspected.

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