Closing the Door at the Ports
A flurry of money, research, and law aims to close a gap in the U.S. security net
ELIZABETH, N.J.It didn't take too long after September 11 for Chief Kevin McCabe, the official overseeing screening in the sprawling Port of New York/New Jersey complex here, to realize that his job was about to become a lot more stressful. Within months, he was handed an intelligence tip that a container on the way to the port held a so-called dirty bomb made with radioactive material. On the day it arrived, McCabe's team isolated it from 8,000 other container boxes, fed it through a radiation detection machine and an X-ray imager, and then punched holes in its roof to sample the air inside. "It was full of colorful Arabian carpets," McCabe says today, "and that was it." Still, he says officials were "only minutes away" from shutting down the massive port complex.
McCabe's job isn't getting any easier. Nothing's happened yet, but many security analysts believe the smuggling of a nuclear weapon into the United States through a seaport is a very real possibility. The country's 361 commercial ports, meanwhile, have gotten so little funding in the past five years that experts routinely call them the "soft underbelly" of America. In recent months, a flare-up of public indignation over foreign ownership of U.S. port terminals has sparked some major improvements, but further progress is by no means assured, and a host of vulnerabilities remain. With 95 percent of America's imports arriving by sea, there's a lot at stake. "Bomb a seaport," says Joe Curto, an executive vice president of the Maher Terminals here, "and you'll feel it in Iowa supermarkets two days later."
Searching. By any measure, the security challenge is daunting. About 11 million containers arrive by sea each year; U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials closely inspect fewer than 10 percent of them. There have been improvements, though. Prior to 9/11, McCabe says, "every single port was on its own" trying to decide which containers to scrutinize most thoroughly. Customs has since created an automated targeting program that checks the manifests of shipments headed to the United States for anomalies that tag them as "high risk." The Department of Homeland Security has also scooped up 305 radiation monitors once used to detect contaminated scrap metal; today they scan about 83 percent of cargo after it arrives. On a recent morning in Elizabeth, trucks loaded with fresh containers waited in line to exit Maher Terminals. "The only way to drive out," Curto says, "is through those [machines]."
But "we're still pretty far from where we need to be," says Stephen Flynn, a port security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. One reason: Major security initiatives are still in their infancy. A trusted-shipper programin which companies boost security in exchange for less customs scrutinyruns basically on the honor system. Overworked customs inspectors haven't visited about a third of the companies enjoying benefits, and Flynn says many inspectors "aren't exactly experts" in securing the dense network of factories, distribution centers, and couriers that can handle shipments. Staffing crunches have also undermined a separate program that places U.S. Customs officials in 48 foreign ports like Shanghai. A 2005 government study found that 28 percent of containers deemed risky enough for foreign inspections weren't even touched.
But there's been a surge of activity on the port security front since February, when public anxiety was stoked by a proposed $6.8 billion business deal that would have given a firm run by the government of the United Arab Emirates leases to operate terminals in six U.S. ports. The company later agreed to sell the U.S. assets, and American International Group said recently that it had reached a deal to buy them. But the controversy "breathed new life into port security ideas that had seemed dead as a doornail" for months, says a Capitol Hill staffer.
Reform. In September, Congress passed the SAFE Ports Act, which mandates that DHS provide the 22 largest U.S. seaports with enough radiation detectors to scan all containers by 2008. The bill also eases the customs staffing crunch by using contractors to review trusted shippers. "We're also finally giving the ports the money they so desperately need," says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a lead SAFE Ports author. The bill requires DHS to hand out $400 million in port grants in each of the next five fiscal years. Seaports have gotten about $800 million total since 9/11 despite U.S. Coast Guard estimates that $5.4 billion is needed just for basics like security cameras and protective fencing.
Most experts cite SAFE Ports as the most substantial piece of maritime legislation in years. But a new Congress will have its own ideas. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has boasted that she has "even tougher proposals" than the 9/11 commission on port security and plans to push a measure early next year to "screen 100 percent of [maritime] containers long before they reach U.S. shores." Critics say such plans could cost billions. And since current scanning protocols, requiring both radiation and X-ray screening, can take up to 20 minutes per container, pursuing the initiative now could "create massive backlogs," Collins says. The SAFE Ports Act takes a different approach: It requires DHS to try 100 percent inspection in at least three foreign ports next year to learn more. DHS Chief Michael Chertoff said last month that he would launch trial runs in six countries, including Pakistan and Oman. The earliest tests begin in February.
Another issue that could resurface in the new Congress: what to do about America's 750,000 workers who require access to secured areas of U.S. ports. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint pushed this fall to have SAFE Ports ban a wide array of felons-including those guilty of rape, kidnapping, and robbery-from working in U.S. ports for seven years after their convictions. The final bill bars only those convicted of treason, espionage, sedition, or acts of terrorism. DeMint says that leaves open the possibility of bribery and smuggling "in a place with a lot of money flowing around, like seaports." A DHS study of New York and New Jersey suggested nearly half of the 9,000 truckers with access to the ports may have criminal records. So implementation of DeMint's proposed standard, almost identical to requirements for aviation screeners, "could be chaos for us," says Curto.
DHS is also running into major snags on an effort to install $1.15 billion worth of more modern, reliable radiation monitors at U.S. ports by 2011. Chertoff said this summer that DHS had "begun to order the first 80" machines and looked forward to "starting to deploy" equipment this autumn. U.S. News has learned, however, that while the machines are out in the field, they've yet to be turned on.
Many say DHS has been slowed by critical reports from the Government Accountability Office. Auditors blasted DHS in October for not including the results of some 7,000 tests on the new monitors in a cost-benefit analysis sent to Congress justifying their purchase. Several tests, according to GAO, found that the most reliable model of the machines now being deployed could detect disguised, highly enriched uranium only 53 percent of the time.
Still, Vayl Oxford, DHS nuclear detection czar, stands by his work. "We tested [monitors] against some scenarios where we didn't expect them to find anything," he says. The department has obligated only $50 million of the $1.15 billion contract so far, and what Oxford calls "more definitive testing"-in concert with tweaking the machines-will be performed in the next few months. "We're on track," he says. "And I think this country will be a lot better off."
They certainly hope so in the Port Newark portion of the complex. On a recent afternoon there, it was clear why new machines, which are supposed to be able to distinguish between harmful and innocuous radiation, are so desperately needed. In a single hour, a row of 10 current-generation monitors was tripped by two shipments of granite from Italy, another one from India, and traces of radiation left over in one trucker's bloodstream from a heart stress test he took two weeks before. The newer machines are expected to save U.S. Customs 2.2 million work-hours each year by eliminating secondary inspections that must be done with unreliable hand-held nuclear detectors. Still, "I'm confident if a radiological device got in this place," McCabe says, "we'd find it." That's a lot of confidence for a man on the hot seat.
This story appears in the January 8, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.