Securing America's Ports


Mar 26, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on March 26, 2006.

The decision by Dubai Ports World to back out of its deal to manage port facilities in six American cities will not solve serious security problems plaguing U.S. ports. Regardless of who runs them, ports on America's Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts remain dangerously vulnerable to terrorist attack because global trade has interconnected economies and sharply increased shipping traffic.

Today a great deal of the clothes you wear, the food you eat and the products you use at home and work likely entered America's supply chain packed in large containers on ships that docked at U.S. ports. Unfortunately, terrorists can ship chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons (if they have them) into the United States in the same way. What to do?

Closing U.S. ports and shutting down global trade are not a realistic option. Even individually inspecting every entering container is far too costly and time-consuming to be practical. But just because we can't make ports 100 percent secure doesn't mean we can't make substantial security improvements.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, billions of dollars have been spent to secure U.S. ports and global supply chains.

The Port Security Grant Program funds old-fashioned security: fences, gates, cameras and lights. The U.S. Coast Guard ensures the safety and security of all vessels that operate in U.S. navigable waters.

In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection now requires that it be notified of cargo information a day before a container is loaded onto a ship bound for the United States. The agency also requires a complete list of crew members four days before arrival of a ship at a U.S. port. In the intervening time, Customs and Border Protection analyzes cargo and shipper information to determine the relative risk level of each container, so officials can decide whether to X-ray or open and unpack the container.

Reflecting the nature of today's supply chains, the port security effort is international in scope. The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism is a voluntary program in which participants certify the integrity of their supply chains back to the remote supplier. Through the Container Security Initiative, U.S. inspectors are stationed at foreign ports to inspect U.S.-bound cargo long before it reaches America. The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code – along with the U.S. version, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 – provides a foundation for securing vessels across the globe.

Other programs have been slow to get off the ground. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration has yet to work out the details of an ID card that would certify workers in the transport system, including truck drivers and rail engineers. Container seals remain a challenge because of the diversity of types and the complexity of methods use to check and verify those seals as a container travels along its route, often changing hands a dozen times. The installation of radiation monitors at U.S. and foreign ports has been piecemeal.

The Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, introduced in Congress on March 14, proposes over $4.5 billion from 2007 through 2012 to augment and audit the programs listed above. Experts have suggested these funds also could be used to make America's ports safer by:

Hiring more inspectors to open and search containers at U.S. ports and overseas.

Taking X-rays of containers before they are shipped to the United States and after they arrive, to see if illicit cargo has been stashed en route.

Using “smart seals” that notify shippers when a container is breached or its route diverted.

Installing radiation monitors at all ports throughout the world.

Improving the validation and monitoring of shippers.

Increasing the sharing of intelligence information between government agencies and businesses, especially when companies have significant overseas operations.

Investing in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection freight data systems so that freight bound for and within the United States can be tracked more effectively.

Promoting government and private sector cooperation to plan and practice procedures for closing, securing and reopening U.S. ports in the event of an attack or other security incident.

With so many potential actions that can be taken to better secure our ports, where should our efforts start? Simply spending more money on security is not the wisest course. Instead, we need to focus on “smart security” for ports – spending money on the most effective solutions.

The first step to improving port security is to specify goals. Security is one of many aspects of port operations to evaluate. Assessment of security measures also should consider their effects on the efficiency and reliability of the whole freight transport system, including the effects on local communities. This is the only way to know whether efforts are making the United States safer.

In 2004, we analyzed port security programs in a report for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization where we are employed. We determined that while many programs made sense intuitively, the effect of any single program on the security of the system as a whole wasn't known. Two years later, we still don't know. For example, the private sector bears the costs of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, but the benefits – in security or ease of transport – offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have not been verified.

At some point, spending more money on port security won't make San Diego or the rest of the country any safer. As ports become more difficult to attack, terrorists may choose to attack through other means. This is especially relevant for San Diego, which is close to the U.S. Mexican-border and several international airports.

Also, excessive emphasis on port security can actually reduce security as a whole. Impediments to the movement of legitimate cargo may cause that cargo to be moved by other, less secure, means.

With respect to security, smuggling of a nuclear weapon into America is the greatest concern. A coming RAND study concludes that continuing operation of global trade and maintaining orderly economic relations would be extremely difficult following detonation of a small nuclear bomb at a port.

Security measures fail if they only detect weapons of mass destruction upon entry in the United States. Instead of focusing solely on U.S. ports, measures to improve security must address the entire supply chain. Efforts like the Container Security Initiative may protect the United States, but they aren't designed to protect U.S. trading partners. Meaningful international programs need to be true partnerships.

While impenetrable security is our goal, it is unattainable. Realistically, the United States must devote resources to manage the effects of an attack, should one occur. While this point is widely recognized, the details must be ironed out about when and how ports would be reopened if closed by an attack. Response and recovery preparations have multiple applications. Many of the procedures that are developed to respond to a catastrophic attack will also improve response following natural disasters.

In scuttling the purchase of port operations in the United States by Dubai Ports World, Congress has focused attention on port security, opening a window for positive action to secure ports and global supply chains. Now policy-makers need to recognize that the smartest security measures are not always the ones that cost the most, but instead are the ones shown to be most effective after careful research and analysis.

Willis and Ortiz are researchers at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and authors of the RAND report “Evaluating Security and Efficiency of the Global Containerized Supply Chain.”