The 9/11 Commission recognized that “The U.S. transportation system is vast and, in an open society, impossible to secure completely against terrorist attacks.” Despite that challenge, said Asa Hutchinson, under secretary, Department of Homeland Security, “We continue to make progress every day.”
His comments on the Commission report are an interesting contrast with the tone of a panel discussion on port security he participated in at the National Press Club in Washington, DC just a few weeks earlier.
“It is no secret that [ports] are vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks,” said John McCarthy, director of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Program at George Mason University School of Law. McCarthy kicked off a blue-ribbon panel on port security that included secretary Hutchinson and Rear Admiral Larry Hereth, director of Port Security, U.S. Coast Guard. Hutchinson noted that U.S. ports have been built for 300 years without security in mind. “We do not replace that type of thinking overnight,” he added. He said that following the July 1st implementation of the UN International Ship and Port Facilities Security Code and security measures contained in the U.S. Maritime Transportation Security Act, the public could expect to see increased law enforcement presence at the ports, more availability of canine teams, and more ID checks. Less visible were the surveillance cameras, background checks, and greater security in areas that ought to be protected.
Hutchinson also said many international ports would not be in compliance with the UN port security code and U.S. officials would be asking questions like, “Did this container go through a port that is not in compliance?” That’s a good reason to enhance inspection criteria for that container, ship, or crew, the secretary continued. “I believe we have the systems in place. It’s our job to make those systems work.” Rear Admiral Hereth agreed with the secretary that a ship from a non-compliant country or port would be given additional scrutiny. He commented, “This is the first time a security code will be imposed across the entire United States and, indeed, the entire world, changing the nature of how shipping occurs and providing a much more secure environment for shipping, the ships, and the port facilities they are served by.”
Joseph Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, noted the Port of Baltimore had already gone from inspecting 2% of containers to inspecting 10%. In the event of another major terrorist attack, one that centers on a port facility, the panel debated whether a total shutdown similar to the grounding of all aircraft on September 11, 2001 would be necessary.
Jim Wyatt, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, commented that individual decisions would need to be made. “Do you shut down our economic system?” he asked rhetorically. “I think we learned that you can’t do that.” Another panelist commented, “Now the question becomes, do we have a system in place that allows us to effectively seal off the damage to a port or a couple of ports that may have been attacked while letting the rest of the system continue to function?”
Speaking of the funding crisis that accompanies the security initiatives, the panel continued, “If you’re shortchanging the investment on the front end, we’re not going to have that confidence on the back end.”
One conclusion from the panel discussion up to this point is that the President will have to stand before the American public and say he has confidence that we know what has happened and we have an effective system to isolate the area that’s been damaged without damaging the economy – you have to have an economy that can function regardless of the color of the alert.
Hutchinson’s response to the 9/11 Commission report focused on improved use of watchlists and improved passenger and property screening. He didn’t mention the funding crisis which occupied so much of the focus of the earlier panel discussion. It seemed clear to the panel that increased security is an unfunded requirement. Ports, said one panelist, receive an estimated five cents for every dollar of security grants in the air transport sector. Though airlines and airports are also funding security initiatives, it was clear there is a requirement for more private sector funding for maritime security.