Don't let ports be weakest link

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge met with a group of Seattle officials recently and told us he's sleeping better at night because our country is better prepared than before to defend against a terrorist attack.

When I spoke with him later, I said, "I'm glad you're sleeping better, Mr. Secretary, because I'm not."

I meant no disrespect. I have tremendous regard for Mr. Ridge and for the difficult job he is doing. But here's what keeps me awake at night:

Worldwide, there are 50,000 ships, carrying 9 million containers, calling at 3,000 ports.

In the US we have 361 river ports and seaports. Every year we get 50,000 visits from 8,100 foreign ships. Every day 21,000 containers enter the US. We can verify the contents of only about 4 percent to 6 percent of those containers. And it would require only one rogue container to bring commerce to its knees.

Imagine what would happen if a biological, chemical, or some other kind of weapon arrived in one of our harbors. Every American port would be affected as authorities worked to determine the extent and the source of the threat. Global trade could practically be shut down. And we don't have the systems in place to get our seaports up and running again. Our airports were operating a few days after Sept. 11, 2001. Reopening seaports would take substantially longer.

Retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart don't have giant warehouses brimming with inventory that can keep the American public supplied if trade is shut down. Even major manufacturers such as General Motors obtain some of their components overseas. Their inventory arrives daily in shipping containers, just in time to replenish stock or enter the manufacturing process.

At the Port of Seattle, where we run both a major international airport and a seaport, the security of our region is paramount. Our port commission has taken actions that have made Seattle a leader in improving US maritime and aviation security. We have sought to lead by example by investing in technologies that have the potential to solve national problems as well as to eliminate those vulnerabilities under our own control.

But in reviewing the threats to our transportation network, I have to conclude that when it comes to aviation security, we may have overreacted. And when it comes to maritime security, we haven't done nearly enough.

Air travel is safer for two primary reasons: reinforced cockpit doors and the change in attitude of the traveling public. But the cost of increased airport security is too high. Passengers have to take off their shoes; they wait in line for up to two hours to get on an airplane. Nationally, we are spending $5 billion to $7 billion a year without adding much in the way of value.

It is a very different story at our nation's seaports. We're spending a fraction of what we spend at airports, on a far more complex problem. We do not have a comprehensive plan to know what is in the containers that arrive every day. We need to verify that those boxes are documented, loaded securely, and protected against tampering throughout their journey.

We have made some progress. The nation's port authorities, working with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, law-enforcement agencies, regulators, and customers, have developed new security measures for our facilities, ships, and the areas around ports. We have new rules about cargo manifests and have begun programs to extend our security into foreign ports.

Programs such as Operation Safe Commerce, of which Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington was a principal author and champion, do just that. But due to the frugality in our overall approach to port security, this program is still just a demonstration project. Increased funding for such programs is vital.

Ridge has said that funding for more robust solutions to container security problems will have to come from the private sector. But passing along the bill for security might very well drive our maritime customers and carriers to ports in Canada and Mexico. Waterborne commerce took a real hit after Sept. 11, as did airlines. Adding more costs would be counterproductive for us all.

What we need is for the federal government - and the Department of Homeland Security in particular - to produce a set of standards, practices, and protocols giving clear policy guidance and to make intelligent investments to secure our ports. And we need a clear and agreed-upon process that would reopen ports quickly in the event of attack.

The Port of Seattle has been a leader in developing and implementing maritime security demonstration projects that will provide comprehensive container security while adding value by improving inventory control and expediting the movement of cargo. The technology and security protocols work, and they are available. We need to act on maritime security now so we can all sleep better at night.

M.R. Dinsmore is chief executive of the Port of Seattle and a member of the CEO Roundtable of the National Defense Transportation Association. ©The Washington Post

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