Thursday, February 23, 2006

Knight Ridder Says Dubai Deal Obscures Real Port Security Issues

I always find the Knight-Ridder news bureau to be one of the best at running insightful, intelligent stories that help the reader's understanding of complex issues. This Knight-Ridder story about port insecurity is another example:

"Ports around the country have increased their security significantly, but none of us are where we want to be," said Luther Kim, the chief of the 13-officer armed security force at the port in Corpus Christi, Texas." A lot of that is because security improvements are expensive."

"The real issues are funding, threat intelligence and dissemination, and improved security at (foreign) ports of origin," said Kim Petersen, the president of SeaSecure, the oldest port security consulting firm in the United States. "There really isn't a lot of funding when you consider the magnitude of what's needed to support our ports. ... If al-Qaida can disrupt the flow of container shipments going into and out of the United States, we're talking about tens of billions of dollars."

In the past 4 years, the Bush administration has installed more than 1,200 large or hand-held radiation detectors to scan for nuclear materials being smuggled into the nation's ports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, inspects and boards ships at 42 foreign ports before they send goods to America.

Still, only 5 percent of the 8.6 million shipping containers that flow into U.S. ports every year are opened and inspected, and a 2005 DHS inspector general's report concluded that nearly 80 percent of the port security grant money isn't being spent.

The DHS on Tuesday issued a fact sheet that brags about how it uses "a risk-based strategy to review information on 100 percent of all cargo information entering U.S. ports."

But the artful wording obscures the fact that paperwork, not containers, is being inspected, said Randolph Hall, the co-director of the CREATE Homeland Security Center at the University of Southern California.

The Homeland Security Department's Container Security Initiative tries to inspect most at-risk containers before they leave foreign ports based on a complicated formula, said homeland security spokesman Brian Doyle.

"You cannot inspect every container - you would stop business in its tracks," Doyle said. "The programs put in place for port security have been pretty massive."

"We're living on borrowed time," said Jerry Hultin, president of New York's Polytechnic University and a former Clinton administration Navy undersecretary who studies port security. "The ports have become a very appealing target."

Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on the U.S. Commission on National Security, writes that the system for screening containers remains a "house of cards" because it's been done piecemeal.

The American Association of Port Authorities estimates that ports need $5.4 billion over 10 years to upgrade security, but the Bush administration has budgeted $708 million. And this month, the administration took grant money for port security and combined it with other transportation security grants. That means ports will have to compete against mass transit for security funds, said Bernard Groseclose, the organization's chairman and the president of the South Carolina State Port Authority.

The federal government also is more than 18 months behind on a background check and identification card program for 6 million port and other transportation workers, such as airport personnel and truck drivers, Groseclose said.

Nice - we're inspecting paperwork, not cargo, at port entries around the country.

Makes me feel safe.

Then the Bush administration took money earmarked for port security and put it into a general fund, making ports have to compete with mass transit for the funds.

Makes me feel safe.

Then the federal government is 18 months behind on the background checks of 6 million port workers.

Makes me feel safe.

But they check 100% of the footwear entering aircraft in the nation's airports.

Makes me feel safe.

Sure, Al Qaeda might be able to sneak a fucking nuclear bomb they bought off Pakistan or the Russians into New York or New Jersey and blow a major metropolitan area to smithereens, but at least there'll be no more shoe bombers threatening to take down airplanes over the skies of Los Angeles.

Still, I don't see why we can't work on both airport security and seaport security.

And then I remembered, we are spending a trillion dollars on the Iraq war and are extending the Bush tax cuts into infinity, so of course we don't have money for both airport and seaport security.

Makes me feel safe.

This perspective on the Dubai Port controversy is informed by pretty thorough knowledge of Port operations and security in the US gained through being part of the management team at a Port. Some facts are not being accurately or at least thoroughly reported. Day to day security at Ports is almost entirely the responsibility of terminal operators, which are almost exclusively private companies.

The roles of the Coast Guard and US Customs are very limited. They do not inspect all cargo, or all ships. The Coast Guard requests the private companies to provide a security plan and then expects the company to follow the plan. There are not sufficient personnel to inspect all ships or cargo. The terminal operators do not have equipment or expertise to assure the safety of all cargo. Most terminals are no more secure than they were prior to 9/11. There are few if any federal mandates for Ports and there has been virtually no federal money authorized for Port security.

A contrast with Airport security is instructive. Airports have secured perimeters with controlled access which requires ID cards and increasingly biometric fingerprint information. In order to obtain an ID card, a person must undergo fingerprinting, and an FBI check. Access to secure areas is controlled by government employees who check for the approved identification cards. All baggage is X rayed by government employees and passengers are screened by government employees or private employees meeting detailed government standards.

By contrast, ports do not have secure perimeters, do not require screening of employees and visitors, do not require ID cards and do not x ray all cargo. Checking of cargo inbound to the US occurs at worldwide ports where security may be lax and where bribery and smuggling are known to occur.

An almost perfect analogy would be if airport security were handled by the airlines, including government owned airlines and if those airlines set their own policies and allocated resources with limited government oversight.

This Dubai transaction would present an entirely different situation, if the security at Ports was entirely conducted by government employees with the resources to check all incoming and outgoing activity. The problem being obscured by the administration, is that in fact Ports are a huge terrorist opportunity. Ports are the one place one can transport and literally hide a nuclear device. If the administration is comfortable with this transaction, it should also be comfortable with the same company operating Dulles Airport.

As to the Dubai connection, there well may be “racism” underlying the outcry. However, that should not obscure that we have virtually no government security at the ports and we are entirely at the mercy of private operators,. At those ports we receive shipments from all over the world, which we cannot possibly know have been competently and honestly inspected. Personally this has bothered me as a resident of a port city long before Dubai became an issue. The real issue we need to debate is whether we are safe when we delegate such vital security to any government or corporation over which we do not have adequate control and oversight as opposed to devoting the same level of our own government resources to ports which have been devoted to airports. Rather than just examine the Dubai transaction, the entire structure of port operations must be examined before we can increase our security.
Thank your for this comment, anonymous. You have opened my eyes, confirmed some things I already thought, and gave me some new (and terrifying information) to chew over as news of the Dubai delay hits the wires today.

My question to you is this: how do we improve port security so that it becomes as highly regulated and technologically advanced as airport security? Politics aside (and I know Democrats will try to make hay of this port insecurity issue in 2006 the way Kerry tried to make it an issue in 2004), I really am worried about somebody sneaking something radioactive into a U.S. port and blowing part of a city to kingdom come.
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