On the waterfront

July 21, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH yesterday called Baltimore's port an "impressive place to chopper over." It's a shame his tour didn't include a closer look at the infamous wooden block mounted on a pole - the decoy camera that passes for counterterrorism strategy at the port. Nor did it include an introduction to the "Chicken Necker Gang," the three Dundalk crabbers who were given criminal citations for trespassing at the port last week. Both could have enlightened his views on the subject of port security.

But let's start with the thing that Mr. Bush got right in his speech. Yes, there's a need to protect America's ports. Ports are crucial for the nation's economy, handling 95 percent of all U.S. imports, a volume that's expected to double over the next two decades. Baltimore, the nation's eighth-largest port, represents more than a billion dollars to the local economy and thousands of jobs. But Mr. Bush's mistake is that he thinks America's ports are now adequately secure. That's a dangerously naive point of view.

It's really quite simple. Since 2002, Baltimore has received $14.5 million in port security grants from the federal government. Mr. Bush even alluded to that in his speech. Does anyone else believe that a sprawling facility handling nearly 140,000 cargo containers can be made secure for such a sum? Mr. Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff can talk a good game. They speak of new technologies and bringing a "sense of urgency" to the challenge. But when it's time to actually pay for these upgrades, their actions fall short.

Last month, officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection came to Baltimore to show off new high-tech equipment that can X-ray whole containers. But even with this device, only 14 percent of the containers coming into Baltimore are scanned. That's the equivalent of requiring one out of every seven airline passengers to pass through a metal detector. We wouldn't accept that ratio in air travel, we shouldn't at the port.

How great is the risk? The Government Accountability Office has suggested ports could be the ideal conduit for terrorists attempting to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the country. And forcing the shutdown of ports nationwide could cripple the U.S. economy.

But it appears the administration isn't paying much attention to such concerns. More than $18 billion has been spent to make air travel safer; the administration allocated $150 million for port security grants last year. The recent bombings in London suggest that the terrorist playbook isn't limited to hijacking planes. The Coast Guard estimates that it will cost $5.4 billion for the ports to adequately address the terrorist threat. Port authorities don't have the resources to upgrade security on their own.

Mr. Bush would be wise to scrutinize America's ports a bit more closely than from a thousand feet in the air. Instead of touting the failed provisions of the Patriot Act, he might decide that a more effective anti-terrorism strategy would be to spend money where the risk is greatest. The neglected waterfront might just top that list.

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