Easy targets invite terror at U.S. ports

Security: Valuable cargo and volatile chemicals are stored virtually unguarded near major cities, and accountability is fragmented, experts warn.

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 19, 2001|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

With America now on alert for imminent terrorist attacks, former federal agents acting as consultants to private industry say widespread security lapses have left no shortage of targets.

While the Bush administration has sharply focused public attention in recent weeks on airline safety and biological weapons, security specialists say other major hazards have been imperiling U.S. population centers for years.

Nationwide, they say, tons of jet fuel, gasoline, liquefied natural gas, munitions and caustic chemicals in tank farms and seaport facilities lie virtually unprotected - accessible to petty thieves, organized criminals and terrorists alike.

Bridge, tunnel and rail security systems have become so outmoded they are vulnerable to even amateur acts of sabotage. Amtrak officials have told Congress that three antiquated East Coast tunnel systems alone need more than $1 billion in fire safety and ventilation improvements.

"The danger is very, very real and as immediate as it could possibly be," warns Raymond W. Kelly, a global security expert who has headed both the New York City Police Department and the U.S. Customs Service. "It could happen tomorrow."

"The scenarios are mind-boggling, and the American people have very little appreciation of the danger, mainly because nobody outside of the federal regulatory agencies has paid any attention to it until now."

Acts of sabotage that might have been previously unthinkable, experts say, now loom large in corporate security briefings. Among the most frightening: "fuel-air explosions" or "FAEs" that result when volatile fuels or gases are vaporized and ignited to produce explosions equal to many tons of TNT.

Hundreds of storage sites for such materials lie close to cities and towns throughout the country - Baltimore included - and many are inadequately protected.

"We're talking about a lack of planning and decades of deferred spending by government and private industry," says Len Cross, a retired FBI agent involved in the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombing probes.

In thousands of pages of testimony, reports and bulletins over the past decade, federal oversight agencies warn that port and industrial security has crumbled since the nation last faced the threat of domestic attack in World War II.

In recent hearings before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, for example, industry representatives acknowledged that such ordinary precautions as gates, fencing and cameras are sorely lacking at most of the nation's 361 seaports.

A port security bill pending before the Senate sets the price tag for these rudimentary improvements as high as $320 million over the next four years. "And we don't have four years," says Cross.

In the event of a major ground campaign like Desert Storm, shipping is the backbone of national defense - moving 95 percent of the U.S. military's trucks, tanks, combat helicopters and troops.

"There's a port I could take you to in Florida today that's wide open," fumes Keith Prager, a former Customs senior agent in Miami turned security consultant.

"The fence is full of holes. Half the gates are hanging open. They have a tank farm sitting out there full of aviation fuel - thousands of gallons of the stuff - less than a mile from a couple good-sized cities," Prager says. "And that's not even the worst example I could give you. Wal-Mart is doing a better job of protecting its retail stores right now."

A panel set up by the Clinton administration in 1999, and co-chaired by Kelly, to study 12 of the nation's largest ports found that half had degraded perimeter fencing, four had no regular security patrols, nine had completely unsecured waterfronts, and only two performed routine criminal background checks on employees.

Among ports surveyed were Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J. The commission did not visit Baltimore, but it has been included in critical port security audits by other federal agencies.

"U.S. seaports are extremely exposed," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, at a hearing last summer, noting that up to $12 billion worth of goods disappears from docks every year. "On a daily basis many seaports have cargo that could cause serious illness and death to potentially large populations of civilians."

Closer to home

One such port splays across miles of open waterfront, encompassing dozens of chemical tank farms and warehouses, secured by chain-link fencing that is rusted, buckled and torn.

That port is Baltimore.

Within a mile of the Inner Harbor, it is a major East Coast import and export hub for a broad range of dry and liquid chemicals. If ignited, many are capable of producing ferocious fires, explosions and clouds of noxious fumes - immediately adjacent to such densely populated rowhouse neighborhoods as Locust Point, Highlandtown and Canton.

Lighting in many cargo areas is minimal. Security patrols are scant, at best. And unguarded gates hang open.

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