Security Slack at Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach
Current efforts only ''scratch the surface,'' according to Los Angeles Daily News story
WASHINGTON, DC - 09/06/04 - Security at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has improved since the September 11, 2001, attacks, mostly due to relatively low-cost measures like fixing fences, putting up K-rails and repairing locks, reports Lisa Friedman from the Washington, DC bureau of the Los Angeles Daily News.
But, she writes, experts warn that when it comes to inspecting cargo containers and protecting miles of exposed shoreline, the avenues seen as most vulnerable to a terrorist strike, California's ports are only "scratching the surface."
"If we think about what are some of the most vulnerable targets, some with the potential for catastrophic attacks, said Amy Zegart, a terrorism expert and assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Affairs.
"I think the US Coast Guard has done a tremendous job with the little money they have. But they shouldn't have to be working as hard as they are with as little money. I think it's criminal how little the ports have gotten," she told the paper.
The Port of Los Angeles has spent less than a tenth of the funding it has received from the Department of Homeland Security. When asked to name the port's most significant security accomplishment since 9-11, officials cited the creation of a five-year plan.
The Port of Long Beach has spent more of its federal homeland security money, buying radio equipment, a port-wide surveillance system, guardrails and lighting.
But some of the purchases also have left the agency open to criticism, like spending nearly $40,000 for hazmat suits that officers still haven't been trained to use.
Local security directors blame the federal government for shortchanging the nation's 361 seaports. Together the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach estimate they need $500 million for protection. So far they have received a combined $27.6 million.
Indeed, funding for ports pales in comparison to airport security funding despite the sense among many terrorism experts that seaports may be the next logical avenue for those intent on attacking the nation.
A variety of local terrorist experts expressed concern about the potential of terrorists attempting to use ships to sneak suitcase-sized nuclear bombs missing from Russia or radiological "dirty bombs" into the United States.
"To me, the most likely scenario is one where there is some conventional explosive that causes us to shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's busiest," Zegart told the Daily News. "And the uncertainty of whether other such bombs exist in other containers would lead to a nationwide port shutdown.
"The Brookings Institute estimates that if a weapon of mass destruction was detonated at the ports, the economic damage would be in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars to the global economy."
For the 2005 budget, the Bush Administration has proposed $1.9 billion for port security compared to about $5.3 billion on aviation security.
"To some extent, we're fighting the last battle and not prepared for the next one," said P.J. Crowley, director for national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. "We're obviously still in the early stages of reforming the whole concept of port security after September 11.
"We're only scratching the surface," he told the Daily News.
Since 2002, the federal government has sent the Port of Los Angeles $13.6 million to buy police boats, a waterside surveillance system and to purchase barriers around the port's cruise center.
So far the agency has spent $1.5 million of that funding to study the creation of what will be a $4 million facility, located between the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, to inspect suspicious containers.
Currently those containers must be shipped to an inspection facility in Carson.
George Cummings, security director for the Port of Los Angeles, said the facility is behind in the big-ticket security measures because it did not get enough funding in the early rounds of grants. The first year that funding was doled out, the Port of Los Angeles was awarded $1.5 million while the Port of Long Beach received $4.3 million.
Long Beach did better in the first two rounds of grants, leaving Los Angeles officials citing "vision" as their most important security achievement in three years.
"We are just at the point where we see more clearly in developing our five-year plan. We have a clear vision of what we think a secure port is," Cummings said. "We understand much more clearly what, in the new era, the threats and vulnerabilities are. Now we are ready to put down specifics and request funding."
The port has asked for $11.5 million this year to buy computer-aided dispatch equipment, a command-and-control center, and a system to allow different radio dispatchers to communicate with one another.
Long Beach, reports Friedman, has installed 52 cameras and surveillance equipment costing about $5.6 million and about $1.3 million worth of crash barriers, K-rails and other fences to protect the port administration building and non-terminal areas like bridges and overpasses.
"So people can't get in there and cause disruption," Port Security Director Bill Ellis said.
The port also bought 60 hazmat suits for $39,000, good for one-time use in the event of a chemical or biological attack, but Ellis said port police would use them even in the event of a spill or other non-terrorist related incident. "If you need them, put them on and we'll worry about the details later."
Except that port police still don't know how to use the special suits because the city has not scheduled a training session.
Dockworkers have complained that the four gamma-ray scanners and one X-ray machine used to inspect the approximately 3 million containers that flow through the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports annually are inadequate.
In the best-case scenario, a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations found that the radiation-detecting devices would have a one in four chance of discovering a nuclear device aboard a ship and most likely no chance of detecting a bomb packed tightly inside a heavy machinery container.
But Vera Adams, US Customs Service port director for the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport, responded, "The pieces of equipment we have are sufficient to do the volume we have now. It's enough to cover all of our workload."
The gamma-ray scanners, which can detect the contents of a steel container or truck, are designed to inspect as many as eight containers per hour.
Assuming all four of the ports' scanners work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the port has the ability to inspect 280,320 containers each year. That comes to about a 10% inspection rate - higher than the current national average of about 6% but far below what experts say is necessary.
"Why should we waste our resources merely to meet a percentage goal?" she said. "Why would we distract our personnel who are trying to find a needle in a haystack by targeting low-risk cargo?"
Added Customs spokesman Michael Fleming, "It's not the total percentage, it's the right percentage."
The ports in December are expecting to install about 88 radiation portal monitors at outgoing terminal gates. Every container that leaves the terminal will pass through one of the monitors, which will be able to detect whether there is an unusual level of radiation inside.
Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn said he's taking steps to improve the percentage of shipping containers that are inspected and X-rayed, and is working with countries like China to develop procedures to ensure ships are not used by terrorists to smuggle bombs or other weapons of mass destruction into the United States.
"We want to push our borders offshore," Hahn said. "We're working with Hong Kong and China to develop protocols on developing locks, devices to indicate cargo has not been tampered with and GPS tracking devices. I think it's moving along very well. But I'm sure we're talking about international treaties. We want to develop a system that will work worldwide."
Hahn also backs US Coast Guard reservists and the Sea Marshal Program meeting ships before they come through the port breakwaters to ensure they are "operated by the people who should operate them."
"We need more technology to screen the containers, but we need to be aware of any threats long before the threats come into US waters," Hahn said. "It's going to take a lot more international cooperation. In the meantime, any ships that raise suspicions get extra scrutiny now."
Retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael Kearney, who now heads a defense consulting firm in Philadelphia, said one major security failing that remains inadequately addressed is the miles of unprotected shoreline on both coasts.
"We're still wide open," Kearney said. Currently, he said, ports are essentially unable to detect, say, a diver attaching a remote-controlled explosive device to a ship or to the bottom of the ocean near a port.
"A big oil tanker makes a lot of smoke and fire when it blows up. You know those extremists want that. We still have thousands of miles of coastline and shoreline and estuaries and bays unprotected. That's a problem."
Kearney, like other experts, said ports have made their greatest security strides so far by just doing the basics: Locking doors, fixing fences and repairing lights.
"We can get from 0% to 80% just by doing the simple things," he said. But that crucial last 20%, he said, will take far longer.
The Coast Guard has instituted new reporting requirements for ships entering US harbors. Now, instead of notifying ports 24 hours in advance, ports must receive detailed information about a ship's crew, passengers and cargo at least 96 hours in advance.
The Transportation Security Administration his issued IDs to everyone who has controlled access to secure areas at the ports. And, as of early August, about 89.5% of national and international ports have completed their security plans.
"We're definitely doing better than we were before September 11, but we still have a long way to go," Kearney told the paper.
Added Cummings, "We've done some things to reduce the threat, and we are continuing to do other things."
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