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Homeland Security

SLUG: 7-37824 Dateline-Maritime Security, Pt.1




TITLE=Maritime Security, Pt. 1

BYLINE=Ted Landphair



EDITOR=Rob Sivak


INTRO: In the months immediately following the deadly terrorist attacks of September Eleventh, 2001, the United States dramatically tightened airline and airport security. All the while, U-S senators Ernest Hollings and John Breaux [pron: BROH] -- and others -- were urgently pointing to the nation's 361 deep-water ports and 150-thousand kilometers of unguarded coastline. Senator Hollings called them a "gaping hole" in national security and the next likely terrorist target. In the first of two Dateline reports on America's maritime security, VOA's Ted Landphair looks at what some see as potential "nightmare scenarios" at the nation's ports and along its coastlines.

ANCR Ninety-five percent of America's foreign trade passes through its seaports. They had long been heavily secured against theft, illegal immigration, smuggling, and drug trafficking. But with Nine-Eleven-2001 came visions of a far more sinister threat -- terrorists sinking a huge vessel in a critical shipping channel or sneaking in weapons of mass destruction in a ship's hold or one of the six million cargo containers that are unloaded in U-S ports each year.

In Honolulu, one of America's busiest ports, Mark Valencia at the East-West Center has been writing about the potential of rogue nations sending missiles and other munitions across the high seas. President Bush has pressed seagoing nations to agree to selective interdiction -- or the stopping and searching -- of suspect vessels, which can sail as close as twenty-two kilometers from the unguarded American coastline and still be in international waters.


"It's not illegal for various countries to ship nuclear materials or missiles to each other -- that is, if they're not members of the various conventions that prohibit it. According to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, government ships and warships used for noncommercial purposes have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any other state. North Korea or Iran or others could ship these materials on their naval ships and be free from interdiction. What about ships going through narrow straits? What if a supertanker was attacked with a missile or by a suicide-bomb boat and sunk? That would create havoc for the transport of goods, even for the maneuvering of navies."

ANCR But most security analysts agree that, with the U-S Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard all patrolling the waters off America's shores, a direct threat from rogue nations seems remote next to the specter of terrorist acts involving merchant ships.

Last year, Stephen Flynn, a former U-S Coast Guard commander who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, directed a task force on homeland security chaired by two former U-S senators -- Republican Warren Rudman and Democrat Gary Hart. Three years before the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, they had chaired another commission that found the nation ripe for a deadly terrorist assault.

Looking seaward, the new Rudman-Hart commission sounded a similar alarm. Its report expressed grave concern about the vulnerability of intermodal containers -- the trailer-sized metal boxes that carry goods around the globe by truck, train, and ship. Stephen Flynn says an arriving container ship carries as many as six thousand of these boxes -- only about two percent of which are actively screened by the U-S Customs Service.


"In today's world, virtually anybody with about three thousand dollars can get a forty-foot-by-eight-foot [twelve meter by two-and-one-half meter] box delivered to a lot or their home. They can load it with up to thirty tons of material. We put a fifty-cent lead seal on it, and it's pretty much off to the races. Maritime security should be really seen at the very top of our national agenda. The secretary of Treasury, the secretary of Commerce, the U-S trade representative, the secretary of State, and the secretary of Defense should be tossing and turning at night over the vulnerability of our global trade system that underpins so much of U-S power. We're looking at the world in traditional kinds of ways, where we basically are just looking for adversaries that we're going to run to the ground, not stepping back and realizing, 'How do we actually secure the world that we must operate in in the context of this new threat environment.'"

TED Stephen Flynn says electronic surveillance of containers is all the more essential because it takes three customs agents approximately five hours to thoroughly search a single suspect container.

The homeland-security task force recommended immediate action to set up an international tracking system, using fool-proof locks, small transponders, and satellites to follow the chain of custody of each and every container. Little has been done to institute such a program. Mr. Flynn says the idea of turning containers from what he calls "dumb boxes" into "smart boxes" is already in practice when the boxes contain expensive or hazardous cargo. They are carefully tracked by satellite.


[FLYNN] "Most boxes aren't actually loaded at the ports. They're loaded far from the ports in a factory. In some cases that's good news, that there's a major company that takes some safeguards that's going to make sure, ideally, what's put in there is what's supposed to be in there. But the challenge comes once that container is on the move -- on a truck or in a train, or is resting at a depot or rail yard before it even arrives in the port. And a smart box knows where it is and knows what its status is -- knows if somebody's tried to open it up and mess with it. And we need to basically move to a system where we can track containers and have confidence that they haven't been tampered with if we're going to be able to accept that they are low-risk and not be stuck with trying to inspect our way to security.

"The Department of Defense for over a decade has been doing this with its containers. It obviously wants to know where its munitions are and many of its logistics supply-chain materials. And so there are in fact tags that have been developed that are commercially viable that track their goods.

"And in a world where global-positioning system devices are routinely being put into our cars and are attached to packages, radio-frequency identification tags are finding their way to our clothing, this isn't some science fiction.

"The real challenge is not (one) of technology, it's more of choreography. There are so many diverse players involved with our maritime transportation system, involved with global logistics of the high seas along coastal regions that the challenge is how to you get everybody essentially on the same page.

"This is a vital national-security issue, and we need to be treating it with the same level of urgency and commitment that we treated the war on terror in places like Afghanistan and Iraq."

[REPORTER] "Well, it's also a very costly idea, isn't it? To get shippers, who are mostly interested in the speedy movement of goods, to pony up additional funds to make their boxes more secure stretches credulity the way things are going."

[FLYNN] "I don't believe that's the case. We're talking probably a cost of about a hundred dollars per container over a ten-year life of that container, which can boil down to -- if most containers are used at least five times a year -- a five- or ten-dollar additional cost for moving up to thirty tons of material.

"Transportation is not a huge cost for most companies. The real money is made by knowing where your resources are, so you can trim your inventory. And moving toward a transportation system where there's greater visibility and accountability serves that private-sector need as well as the public-sector need."

ANCR Former Coast Guardsman Flynn says that every day's delay in tightening the security net around U-S ports and coastlines is an invitation to a disaster far more significant to the U-S economy than the terrorist attacks of 2001.


"Realize that within three weeks, if we had to close U-S ports to do a post-mortem [on a terrorist incident], we're talking about essentially shutting down global trade, because the intermodal transportation system -- those boxes that bring us virtually everything that's on our grocery shelves or in our Wal-Marts and assembly plants that we have in our country just grind to a halt. And so the stakes here are absolutely enormous. We have to approach this, again, with a great deal of urgency -- much more than we've given it to date."

ANCR The federal government -- through Federal Aviation Administration regulations and investigations -- has long taken the lead role in airport and airline security. But port safety has traditionally been a state and local matter, often handled by state-sponsored port commissions. Their attention was focused on modernization, competing with each other and with foreign ports, and expediting cargo onto and off of ships. Stephen Flynn says security was often delegated to, as he calls them, "private rent-a-cops" -- hardly a sufficient force to combat sly and determined terrorists.


"We are faced, today, with states and most of our major cities simply hemorrhaging in red ink in terms of their budgets -- and in many cases laying OFF policemen and firemen, not actually recruiting them. We have, at best, a treading of water happening at the state and local levels that really are front and center in providing most of the safeguards that go into our seaports.

"The approach that we simply must be taking is going to where these goods originate from and trying to put safeguards in those places -- and if those safeguards fail, being able to detect that there are problems and intercept them before they arrive on our shores."

ANCR That's primarily the job of the U-S Coast Guard -- an armed force of forty-one-thousand that's not part of the Pentagon military structure except in wartime. Its responsibilities and culture have been profoundly changed by the almost frantic calls for enhanced port security. The Coast Guard retains its traditional safety, rescue, and anti-drug patrol duties. But its main mission these days is the detection, interception, and, if necessary, destruction of terrorists or suspect vessels before they reach U-S waters. In another Dateline report tomorrow, we'll get an assessment on the state of readiness from the Coast Guard's commandant. For Dateline, I'm Ted Landphair.


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