Protect our ports

March 14, 2003|By Bruce Loveless, Claudia Risner, Daniel McClellan and John Valentine

WHILE WE prepare for the next battle in the war on terrorism and plan to spend billions of dollars to disarm and rebuild Iraq, city mayors and local responders are asking for money to protect our borders and seaports.

Frontline officials such as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley have charged that our towns and cities have been left "virtually defenseless" by the "federal government's failure to fund homeland defense."

It is recognition that a strong military deployed for the "away game" won't ensure our protection at home. And imminent military action abroad could stir the beehive of anti-Americanism and provoke a terrorist response, not against the strength of our military but here at home where we are most vulnerable.

Despite unprecedented efforts since Sept. 11, our nation remains extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Our transportation systems, by their very nature of accessibility, predictability and expansiveness, are still easy targets.

During the recent Orange Alert, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of potential attacks on "economic targets," including the transportation industry.

The next major terrorist attack on U.S. soil could shut down our major seaports, disrupting our economy beyond calculation. Absent appropriate security measures, even the latest Hart-Rudman report states that our response right now would almost certainly be to shut down our seaports at an enormous cost to the economies of the United States and its trade partners.

The importance of our seaports and the global maritime transportation system to our nation's economic security cannot be overstated. Thousands of ships from around the world deliver millions of containers to our seaports each year, carrying nearly 50 percent of the value of all U.S. imports. Likewise, shipping containers are indispensable in the global supply chain, carrying 90 percent of the world's freight.

While airport baggage checks remain a top priority, shipping containers arrive at our seaports without the same scrutiny or system-wide level of protection. Each year in Baltimore alone, more than 100,000 shipping containers cross local piers and are further transported by truck or rail along major metropolitan corridors.

Often described as the "poor man's missile," shipping containers used by terrorists to deliver a weapon of mass destruction remain a top concern of security experts. Shipping containers offer an attractive means of delivery within the normal stream of imports. In fact, the CIA believes that delivery of a nuclear weapon - without using a missile - is the most likely means for the United States to suffer an attack. And terrorists have attempted to exploit the global shipping container system in at least one case.

Ironically, while such an attack would be devastating, the cost of our response could be far more economically damaging than the attack itself. We learned from the Los Angeles/Long Beach labor dispute last fall that economic losses from a major port shutdown can be staggering - in that case, an estimated $20 billion, with lingering distribution and capacity effects felt nationwide.

Cost and dysfunction from a nationwide shutdown could be catastrophic. So why haven't we developed better responses and why aren't we funding meaningful security for our seaports?

Last month, Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, stated that the federal budget doesn't include enough money for port security. Since Sept. 11, only about $200 million in federal grants have been made available to help protect seaports. Contrast that with the cost of protecting military bases in the United States, which has grown to $5 billion annually.

As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently testified before Congress, the Pentagon is required to keep more than 20 percent more bases opened than are needed, "effectively wasting something like $1 billion every year on force protection alone for bases and facilities we do not need."

In other words, we are spending five times as much protecting unneeded bases in the United States as we are for seaports that are critical to our economic security. Closing these bases and applying the savings to port security could fill a gaping hole in our national missile defense by literally preventing the poor man's missile from "flying" in under our radars.

Shutting down all major U.S. seaports cannot be the best or only option when the next terrorist attack occurs. Keeping our vital seaports open would be the greatest repudiation to terrorist aims. Our best strategy must include funds to fight the war on terrorism both at home and away.

Bruce Loveless and Claudia Risner are U.S. Navy commanders, Daniel McClellan is a U.S. Coast Guard commander and John Valentine is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. All are National Security Fellows at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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