U.S. ports face serious threats of terrorist attacks, security experts say, but Arab-owned cargo terminal managers aren't high on the list.
Debate has raged for a week over security implications of a $6.8-billion deal giving Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates company, management of cargo terminals at six major U.S. ports. Tampa's port could be next if port commissioners go ahead with plans to lease container and general cargo facilities to the British company that Dubai Ports World is scheduled to acquire March 2.
But maritime security experts say the sale is a noisy distraction from real vulnerabilities facing ports: too little inspection of containers, perhaps as small as 5 percent, and gaps in the government's system of identifying dangerous cargo inside.
"It's a minor consideration," says Kim Petersen, president of SeaSecure LLC, the nation's largest maritime security consulting company. "What we've seen is an attempt by some politicians to divert attention from the real problems associated with maritime security."
Security experts, members of Congress and government reports for years have warned that terrorists could use the world's global shipping system for attacks. They blame the vast size of the business - an estimated 9-million containers enter U.S. ports annually - and inadequate government spending on maritime security.
"It is only a matter of time before terrorists breach the superficial security measures in place to protect the ports, ships and the millions of containers that link global producers to consumers," wrote Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent article.
Threats run the gamut from sinking a vessel in a busy shipping channel to taking over a cruise ship and holding passengers hostage. Experts focus particularly on one nightmare scenario: a weapon of mass destruction arriving inside a container.
Federal security officials say they have significantly strengthened port security and established a "layered defense" against anyone trying to smuggle a weapon hidden among legitimate cargo.
Twenty-four hours before a container is loaded at a foreign port, the shipper must provide the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection a manifest listing the cargo inside. The agency processes the information through intelligence databases that give the shipment a risk ranking.
High-risk containers are inspected, often at the 42 foreign ports where Customs and Border Protection agents are stationed.
Vessels headed for U.S. ports also notify the Coast Guard 96 hours ahead of arriving. They provide a description of their cargo and lists of crew members and passengers. The Coast Guard runs the data through its own intelligence matrix, which flags high-risk ships for boarding at sea or in port.
In Tampa and some other ports, containers get another check: a customs scan for radiation. During torrential rains on Feb. 3, a truck driver mistakenly passed by the container scanner on his way out of the port.
A customs agent called port security, which dispatched a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy assigned to the port. The deputy pulled over the driver heading south on U.S. 41 and sent him back, said Peter Miller, the port's security director. "The system works," he said.
Tampa is predominantly a bulk cargo port, shuttling shipments such as phosphate, fertilizer, gasoline and other fuels.
Container volumes are light. Only about 150 of the steel boxes arrive each week. But the port authority has invested $45-million on a new container terminal with hopes to vastly expand the business.
That's what drew the port into the national controversy over Dubai Ports World's purchase of London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Navigation.
Port officials put word out they were looking for a new terminal operator because U.S.-owned SSA Gulf wasn't actively recruiting container shipping lines. P&O Ports was the only major player that made an offer, said port director Richard Wainio.
Port commissioners authorized him Tuesday to sign a contract with P&O but will vote again if Dubai Ports takes over ownership. Dubai Ports said Friday that the sale will close March 2, but it won't "exercise control" over P&O's U.S. port operations while talking with the White House and congressional leaders about security concerns. The company didn't say how long discussions will last.
To help quell opposition to the sale in Congress, the Bush administration released a confidential letter from the company pledging to keep participating in U.S.-led initiatives to close gaps in shipping security worldwide.
That included an agreement with the Department of Energy last year to use new equipment in Dubai's ports to detect radioactive shipments.
A major concern raised by critics of the sale is that Dubai was a critical point for shipping illicit nuclear technology shipped to Libya and elsewhere by a Pakistani nuclear engineer.
In the Jan. 6 letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Dubai Ports also pledged to operate terminals "to the extent possible with the current U.S. management structure" and keep existing security policies. The company also promised to continue employing local union longshoremen.
"The people working in these port operations, regardless of who owns them, will be exclusively American . . . the same employees working for P&O," said Petersen, the maritime security consultant.
But other security concerns persist. In recent years, terrorists have attacked ships and used shipping networks to reach targets overseas.
The Navy destroyer USS Cole was hit with a bomb-laden boat while refueling in Yemen in 2002, killing 17 sailors. Two years later, the French oil tanker Limberg was hit in a similar attack off Yemen's coast. The attack killed a crew member, damaged the ship and caused an oil spill.
And in March 2004, two 17-year-old suicide bombers from Gaza hid in a compartment behind a false wall in 40-foot container to get inside the Israeli port of Ashdod. Their bombs detonated early and killed 10 people, including the two teens.
The incident underscored worries about container security. Amid the Dubai Ports battle, the debate over existing port security standards has flared up anew.
Former Customs and Border Protection commissioner Robert Bonner, who left last November, used to say his agency inspected "100 percent of the right 5 percent of containers." Officials now say the number isn't accurate but decline to give a different figure.
The agency runs two programs to keep weapons of mass destruction out of containers headed for the U.S. The Container Security Initiative puts customs agents at foreign ports to go over cargo manifests and identify risky cargo for inspection.
The other, called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism or C-TPAT, enlists international shipping companies to improve their own security procedures in return for faster clearance through customs.
Congressional investigators found problems with the programs in a report last May. One-third of U.S.-bound shipments weren't reviewed for inspection, according to the General Accountability Office. Also, foreign governments failed to inspect 28 percent of containers referred by customs.
About 80 percent of containers going to the U.S. leave from foreign ports participating in the customs partnership. But that leaves lots of ports in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa with little if any screening, Petersen said.
"Al-Qaida can go to the customs Web site, identify which ports are in the CSI partnership and pick a port in the developing world to ship a WMD to Miami, New York or Los Angeles," he said.
Terrorists likely would pick a well-known company because its shipments would receive little or no inspection as "trusted shipper," wrote Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, which backs stronger port security.
"All a terrorist organization needs to do is find a weak link . . . such as a poorly paid truck driver taking a container from a remote factory to a port," he wrote. "They can then gain access to the container in one of the half-dozen ways known to experienced smugglers."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.
The Tampa Port Authority has spent $45-million for a new terminal and cranes to jump-start its container cargo traffic. But Tampa has a long way to go before playing in the same league as major container ports.
Port 2004 (TEUs)
Charleston, S.C. 1,863,917
New York/New Jersey 4,478,480
Port Everglades 653,680
Savannah, Ga. 1,662,021
+ TEUs are 20-foot equivalent units (loaded and empty). A 20-foot-long container counts as one unit, a 40-foot container counts as two units.
Note: All Florida port numbers are for fiscal years. The Tampa Port Authority's fiscal year ends Sept. 30. For fiscal 2005, the port handled 26,600 TEUs.
Source: American Association of Port Authorities
PORT SECURITY PROCESS
Before a ship leaves for the United States a manifest must be sent to U. S. Customs listing the ship's contents. Each manifest is given a risk score.
The U. S. Coast Guard is responsible for patrolling the port harbor. They have the authority to board and inspect any suspicious ship.
Cargo containers are usually secured with just a plastic tie.
Most terminal operators handle security internally. There are no industry security standards.
If cargo is considered suspicious it is inspected. One or 2 crates out of every 20 are inspected.
Local police are responsible for the area surrounding the port.