- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

The United States is trying to plug potentially disastrous security gaps in the nation's seaports, but analysts say current proposals are likely to hurt global trade and frustrate friends and foes alike.
Each year, the United States receives some $750 billion worth of cargo representing one-fifth of the U.S. economy at 360 seaports along its coasts and on the shores of the Great Lakes.
Most of the freight arrives on container ships that carry some 6 million cargo containers annually. The contents of those steel containers are rarely inspected.
The containers weigh up to 20 tons and could conceal a tremendous range of goods, including explosives, guns, noxious chemicals and other weapons of mass destruction. Yet because there is so much cargo and the information about it is so vague, security specialists agree there is no practical way to ensure the imports aren't terrorist tools.
To solve the dilemma, Adm. James Loy, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, prominent members of Congress and others are pushing efforts to require cargo destined for the United States to be inspected, sealed in tamper-proof containers and certified as safe before shipment. Otherwise, the United States would refuse delivery and turn away freighters bearing suspicious cargo.
Sen. Ernest Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, and Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, have presented a bill that would impose such requirements.
But rejecting imports and turning back ships hauling between 4,000 and 6,000 containers each could create financial havoc here and elsewhere. It would almost certainly rankle governments already stung by the added costs of meeting new U.S. security demands.
"What is at stake is not just the opportunity for a terrorist who wants to launch another catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But, to a considerable extent, the fate of global trade also rests in the balance," says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"If U.S. authorities find themselves having to turn off the maritime-container-trade spigot, we will have effectively self-imposed a blockade on our own economy," Mr. Flynn testified last month to the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
For at least two years, federal officials and private security specialists have been examining seaport security to spot problems and find solutions. Among other things, they have found:
U.S. seaports typically allow free access to docks and often to container storage areas.
Firearms are generally permitted at dockside.
The federal government has no unified plan for monitoring seaport security, although the ports are international gateways similar to the land portals at San Diego, Detroit or Niagara Falls.
The ports receive no federal funding for creating or maintaining basic security systems. And at many ports, even such basic equipment as small boats, cameras and vessel-tracking devices are lacking.
The agencies involved in port operations fail to share information, and they lack the kind of computer communication needed to adequately track vessels and cargo.
Lack of information about incoming vessels and their cargo, plus the freedom to enter ports, would allow ships loaded with explosives, jet fuel or noxious chemicals to ram docks, devastating ports and surrounding areas.
The relaxed policies around U.S. ports help explain the high incidence of cargo theft and other dockside crime. Free access to docks makes it possible for terrorists to retrieve illicit arms and explosives undetected or even to hijack ships.
It's known, for instance, that al Qaeda has shipped arms and bomb-making materials via Osama bin Laden's covertly owned freighters. The materials used to blow up the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998 were delivered by one of his ships to the dock of Mombasa, Kenya.
Some urban seaports are surrounded by petroleum and chemical storage facilities. A ship ramming the docks could set off gigantic explosions and wreck whole portions of some cities.
"A terrorist act involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons at one of these seaports could result in extensive loss of lives, property and business, affect the operations of harbors and the transportation infrastructure, including bridges, railroads and highways, and cause extensive environmental damage," F. Amanda DeBusk, former Commissioner of the Interagency Commission on Crime and Security in U.S. Seaports, told the Senate Government Affairs Committee in December.
Beyond that, security specialists warn there's nothing to stop attackers from shipping a "weaponized container" directly to almost any targeted U.S. metropolitan area.
It's widely believed that the vulnerabilities of U.S. seaports and those of other nations are well known to terrorists. But the acknowledged absence of security at foreign seaports works in America's favor, security analysts say. Their reasoning: The United States can make the case that meeting U.S. security requirements would increase their own security and reduce their susceptibility to terrorist attack.
Capt. Michael Lipinski, Adm. Loy's spokesman, says the admiral refers to that as "balance."
The Hollings-Graham bill makes clear what happens when one or another party acts irresponsibly.
For instance, the bill requires the secretary of transportation to bar any vessel from "providing transportation" to a port visited by ships serving another port that does not "maintain and carry out effective security measures."
The measure empowers the president to abort without warning the trading rights and seafaring license of any U.S. ship or any person trading with the United States if he finds "a condition" that threatens the ship or its passengers and crew. A vessel carrying terrorists, explosives, or chemical or biological weapons would likely create such a condition.
Among its other provisions, the bill would allow U.S. marine terminal operators to search and seize any cargo that is not properly documented and that has stayed in the terminal for 48 hours. The measure also:
Requires ships to transmit to U.S. officials "pre-arrival messages" containing whatever security information the transportation secretary thinks necessary and to do so well before reaching U.S. destinations. Authorities must "deny port entry to any vessel that fails to comply."
Establishes "maritime safety and security teams" trained and equipped to "conduct high-speed intercepts" and to board, search and seize any "article or thing on a vessel or waterfront facility found to present a risk to the vessel, facility or port."
The rapid-deployment teams would be able to supplement U.S. forces at home or overseas, to respond to criminal or terrorist acts and to "assist with port vulnerability assessments required under this act."
Many security analysts familiar with the bill have praised its provisions. "The critical issue will be to obtain voluntary not mandatory commercial compliance with all of the parties in the commercial transaction," Rob Quartel, former U.S. Federal Maritime Commission member, told the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
"We can't make foreign suppliers abide by all of these rules, but we can certainly tell their U.S. customers that they may face delays unless they know their sources and can validate cargo and process integrity," said Mr. Quartel, who currently heads FreightDesk Technologies, a McLean-based freight- management software company.
"We can't tell a foreign port that it has to purchase millions of dollars' worth of screening devices for the cargoes destined for the United States which our screening picks out as suspect, but we can certainly negotiate procedural agreements [and] provide incentives for those that work with us."

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