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Securing the Nation’s Seaports

August 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: America’s busiest ports aren’t what they used to be. There are new fences and cameras, armed harbor patrols and identification checks.

Machines x-ray cargo containers and inspectors screen cruise ship passengers. All are testament to a post 9/11 reality, a world in which U.S. seaports are viewed as prime terrorist targets.

Together, the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach constitute the nation’s busiest port complex. William Ellis, head of security for the port of Long Beach, says the port was designed to prevent theft, not terrorist attacks.

WILLIAM ELLIS: With a terrorist threat we’re looking at people coming from the outside. We have to turn and focus outward.

We have to look at the waterways, all the boat traffic that comes through here — the people that are on all these vessels that call on here on here every day– on a daily basis. We have to think about what are in these containers that are out here.

JEFFREY KAYE: That new focus is reflected in new guidelines for ships and ports. Under a United Nations code covering 147 countries, ports in the U.S. and abroad must restrict access, check ID’s, and install surveillance gear.

A corresponding U.S. Maritime Act requires security plans at all 361 U.S. ports. The U.S. Coast Guard, in its new role as top cop at the ports, developing and coordinating maritime security, is behind schedule.

It has not has not yet given final approval to security plans filed by thousands of ships and terminals around the country. But it is checking that foreign vessels arriving in port comply with international rules. Coast Guard Captain Peter Neffenger is also captain of the LA/Long Beach Port complex.

JEFFREY KAYE: And you have authority to do what, if the vessels are not in compliance?

CAPT. PETER NEFFENGER: Well, if they’re not in compliance, if I find out about it before they get here, I will hold them outside U.S. territorial waters and they’ll be denied entry, until they can either prove that they do comply, or they return back to their flag state to get into compliance.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the first week of July around the country, the U.S. Coast Guard denied entry to, expelled or detained, 49 foreign vessels for failing to comply with security requirements.

SECURITY GUARD: Right now, what we’re doing here is just monitoring the traffic.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ships are supposed to have tracking devices that radio detailed information that can be used in a system much like an airport control tower.

Coast Guard officials say that as of July 1, they are boarding each ship on its first visit to a U.S. port. And they’re scrutinizing what they consider “high interest” vessels.

COAST GUARD OFFICIAL: We look at the kinds of things that we think terrorists might be interested in. So, you might look at what the vessel’s carrying, what its, what its cargo is, where it’s come from, and/or crew make-up and the like.

So I think it’s a combination of factors about the ship itself that may make it rise to a little higher level of concern for us, than otherwise.

JEFFREY KAYE: The sheer volume of traffic and goods at many seaports poses a huge challenge to security officials. Dock workers at the LA/Long Beach Port complex load and unload ten million containers each year. That’s more than 1,000 an hour.

Before the containers arrive, customs officials and computers scrutinize shipment information that must now be filed with the U.S. Government, to select containers for inspection.

Nationally, about 6 percent of incoming containers gets extra attention from U.S. Customs and border protection officers.

JIM McMILLAN: We wanna make sure these seals haven’t been tampered with and compromised the integrity of whatever’s in the container.

JEFFREY KAYE: When were these seals put on?

JIM McMILLAN: At the shipping port, whatever country they came from.

JEFFREY KAYE: U.S. Customs officers stationed at 19 ports around the world offer a layer of security before containers reach the U.S. Once here, those cargoes picked out are also checked for radiation.

In addition, gamma ray scanners allow officers to analyze skeletal images of the goods.

OFFICER MAURICE PEOPLES: I don’t see anything that quite stands out. So what we’re looking for is weapons of mass destruction and I don’t see anything that would even warrant a red flag to me right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: If there are more questions, the containers are unloaded at a warehouse, where officers hand check contents. It’s not just goods getting additional scrutiny, so are people. For cruise line passengers, disembarkation used to be a casual affair.

Now, much like airports, customs officers screen and process long lines of passengers. Much responsibility for port security falls to terminal operators, the thousands of private companies that handle cargo at ports.

At one terminal, operated jointly by SSA Marine and China Ocean Shipping Company, truckers delivering and picking up goods have their drivers licenses recorded, along with container and truck information. Dock workers must sign for equipment.

MAN: Thank you.

WOMAN: You’re welcome.

MAN: Go ahead.

JEFFREY KAYE: Fences and turnstiles control their movements. Cameras track stevedores and visitors.

RICK BARTLETT: And just to show you, when I heard that you were coming through the facility, I immediately ran it back.

JEFFREY KAYE: Rick Bartlett, the company’s security officer, a position required by the new law, monitored us when we arrived. But not everyone has full confidence in the new security procedures. Michael Mitre is a crane driver. He loads and unloads containers.

He is also the main spokesman on security for the ILWU, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents Pacific Coast dock workers.

JEFFREY KAYE: Are the ports secure?

MICHAEL MITRE: The ports aren’t as secure as they could be or as they should be.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mitre wants more safeguards at the terminals. He says clerks should checking drivers and their rigs as they arrive at the gates, instead of inside as often happens.

He wants dock workers to check the seals on outbound containers, and inspect empty containers as well.

MICHAEL MITRE: You’re going to ask a truck driver for his identification, yet you’re going to let him bring in a container without opening it and checking it to see what’s inside?

It’s no different than going to airport and being asked for your identification but bringing in a suitcase or a steamer trunk without it ever being opened, we would never think about doing that.

JEFFREY KAYE: In response, employers say that the main threat comes from abroad. And they argue– not on camera– that the union is seeking changes that would increase its membership.

On the larger security issue, government officials say there are tradeoffs and priorities.

WILLIAM ELLIS: You’re always trying to balance security with the movement of commerce and trying to find that place where you provide an appropriate level of security and still allow commerce to flow at a pace that will allow these terminals to operate efficiently.

JEFFREY KAYE: A question now confronting policymakers is who will pay for increased port security? Port officials complain Congress has appropriated only a fraction of the billions of dollars needed to protect the nation’s seaports.

The Bush administration wants state and local governments to share the costs with the private sector. Port officials and private companies say taxpayers should foot the bill.