- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

In triggering the Taft-Hartley Act to end the 10-day shutdown of 29 West Coast ports, President Bush declared: "Stronger action is required because the operation of West Coast ports is vital to our economy and our military." Indeed, the labor strife threatened to damage the nation's already-fragile economy by as much as $2 billion per day. Moreover, with Congress now considering a war-authorization resolution, the importance of smoothly operating ports to national security ought to be self-evident. Under these circumstances, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's sharply worded statement criticizing the president for taking such a "drastic step" was particularly inappropriate.
The bitter labor dispute threatened to create utter havoc throughout the nation's manufacturing sector, the operations of which are organized around just-in-time inventory procedures. The shutdown threatened the economies of other nations as well, especially those whose exports to the United States literally mean the difference between an economic slowdown and recession.
While unraveling the economic turmoil generated by a labor dispute on the docks, now is an ideal time to consider the drastic consequences of a seaport disaster in the age of terrorism. Approximately 5.7 million containers shipped from foreign countries enter U.S. ports each year. Another million containers enter the United States by truck or rail from Canada after being shipped on the high seas. Only 2 to 3 percent of these containers are opened and inspected. A year ago, Italian authorities arrested a suspected al Qaeda terrorist hiding in a container bound for the United States through Montreal. The suspect had airport maps and airport security passes.
Explaining how vulnerable the U.S. economy is to terrorist activity aimed at its port system, U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner recently told the International Herald Tribune, "A cargo container loaded up with any kind of nuclear or radiological weapon would have a potentially catastrophic effect, not only in loss of life but to the U.S. economy and the economies of every trading nation in the world." Stephen Flynn, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied the vulnerability of commerce to terrorism, told Mr. Dougherty: "We're talking about shutting down global trade if something goes south. I can't think of a more compelling national interest."
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that federal law-enforcement authorities believe that two San Diego-based September 11 hijackers were there to "pinpoint targets in the Navy's largest West Coast port, [which] is home to two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers [and] five nuclear-powered submarines." It is from such ports, moreover, that an estimated 95 percent of the U.S. military's troops, trucks, tanks and combat helicopters required for a Desert Storm-size ground campaign would have to be transported onto the high seas. As Congress debates a war-authorization resolution, Mr. Gephardt ought to be far more concerned about taking the necessary "drastic step" to secure the nation's commercial and military seaports than he is about criticizing the president's timely intervention in a matter that the commander in chief determined was "vital to our economy and our military."


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