America's ports vulnerable, even with more patrols

Airports capture spotlight, but seaports face risks - from cruise ships to trucks, tankers.

Buffeted by a boisterous wind, the container ship, Conti Asia is listing to the starboard side.

Wave-tossed like an abandoned, 50-story surfboard, the German-registered uber boat is approaching Los Angeles with a cargo of Chinese fireworks.

Out of nowhere, a 40 ft. pilot boat zips through the frothy wake and - both vessels still plowing forward - dispatches six men in blue fatigues up a rope ladder dangling from the supersize hull.

Three months after the country's deadliest act of terror, these men represent the new front-line defense for the seaports that, officials concede, remain all too exposed to covert attack.

The first federal "sea marshals," they will escort this ship into the nation's largest port, with guns, handcuffs, and batons at the ready.

The port they protect symbolizes the scope of seaborne security risks nationwide - and the efforts under way to control those risks.

In pre-9/11 terms, the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach was simply described as America's largest - doing 2-1/2 times the business of all East Coast ports combined.

Post-9/11, the adjacent sprawl of petroleum-tank farms, power plants, pipelines, and hazardous-waste facilities can be labeled, delicately, as a terrorist's fantasy.

"There are currently no national standards for physical security at American ports," says Capt. John Holmes, ranking official here for the US Coast Guard, which is charged with protecting the port. "We have them at airports where people enter, but none where the commerce comes and goes."'

In fact, nationwide, just 2 percent of all cargo, much of it arriving in railroad-size containers, is inspected.

Port bill clears Senate

Congress is moving fast to try to address the acknowledged shortfalls. Last week, the Senate passed approved some $700 million for port security upgrades nationwide.

The measure, still to be taken up by the House, calls for background checks on workers in security-sensitive areas. It requires ships to electronically file cargo manifests before entering port. It improves tracking of crews and passengers and expands the sea marshal program begun here. It also requires ports to develop comprehensive security plans, and guarantees $3.3 billion in loans carry those plans out.

The congressional action follows not just the terrorist attacks but also the finding by three major commissions in as many years that security at US harbors is softer than Achilles' heel.

A task force created by new Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn within days of the attacks called for measures similar to many included in the Senate bill. The task force also urged millions of dollars in new equipment to help scan opaque metal containers for explosives as well as drugs.

Many agencies involved

Other recommendations include a national database for truckers who enter the port, and staff increases for the many agencies whose duties overlap at the port: police, FBI, firefighters, immigration officials, and even the Army Corps of Engineers.

"The protection of ports has to be comprehensive and inter-agency," says Captain Holmes of the Coast Guard. "If I put 100 boats on the water and protect everything from my purview, that doesn't do any good if some terrorist can walk into the cruise terminal or drive a van full of explosives up next to a docked ship."

Touring the waterfront harbor here, Holmes lays out the hurdles facing America's largest port and, by extension, 50 other large US ports and 311 smaller ones.

Because this and other port areas evolved commercially, without a master plan, bizarre anomalies abound: Cruise ship terminals rise next to petroleum tanks. Hazardous-waste facilities closely abut residential areas. Highly explosive chemical storage stand a match throw away from overhead suspension bridges.

Beefing up security on all these fronts also runs into the buzz saw of resistance from business and labor groups that don't want to slow commerce or impinge on civil liberties of travelers. The mayor included business and union representatives in his task force. But some longshoreman's unions have objected to certain procedures as violations of privacy that could lead to employment dismissals based on felonies recorded long ago.

"The new environment of national security has to be part of a larger effort to rebalance new requirements with our national Constitution," California Rep. Jane Harman said at a recent press conference to unveil new security recommendations.

What's clear so far is that US ports have dramatically stepped up security efforts, with high-alert staffing of existing agencies from port police to local fire and police departments, as well as Coast Guard and even US Department of Fish and Game vessels.

In sea marshals here, boarding incoming vessels up to 12 miles offshore, take the precautions a step further. They check passenger and cargo lists, and inspect cabins and cargo holds.

"It's been really hectic and frantic, trying to keep an eye on everything that blinks," says petty officer Ivan Bell, who graduated with 90 others of the first sea marshal training class here. A second class of 90 is in training.

Mr. Bell carries a shotgun and a nine-millimeter Beretta pistol. On his belt are handcuffs, pepper spray, an extendable police club, rubber gloves for handling drugs, and other gloves for frisking suspects.

For all the increased show of force, officials say new equipment is needed if ports are to monitor cargo more closely. One example is a truck with a crane bearing a gamma ray imaging unit the size of a small TV. The unit is passed over a truck or container to create a two-dimensional drawing of its contents which agents can then analyze for possible contraband.

Makeshift armadas

But for now, officials here are making do with what they have. That means relying on hundreds of volunteers and their boats who patrol the waters here under the banner of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Volunteers give time and use their own boats, getting reimbursed only for gas. But since September, volunteer crews have dwindled from nine to one.

"If we are really going to protect US ports the right way, we are going to have to come up with funding to replace all this old equipment," says Ken Smith, who has been in the Coast Guard Auxiliary for 30 years and worked at least eight hours a day every day since Sept. 11. Besides his own time, he has sunk $10,500 into repairs on his 32-year-old boat.

Beyond boats and scanning devices, experts say increased intelligence is the best weapon against terrorism.

Key role of intelligence

This battleground will be political, as law enforcers seek enhanced surveillance of the Internet traffic, money flows, and the like. Harman and others are seeking more funding and political teeth for Tom Ridge, head of the newly-created office of homeland security. That may mean freer flows of information between federal and state agencies, who are currently straightjacketed in sharing key data by security clearance procedures. Such enhanced capabilities will have to be balanced against the encroachment of civil liberties for all US citizens.

"The war on terror is going to be a lot like the war on drugs," says Holmes. "With five million containers passing through here every year, we are going to have to rely on more than getting lucky on a few, random searches. That means watching the movement of possible terrorists more closely by any means at hand."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.