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Sunday, October 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big hole in nation's defenses: our ports

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even as America scrambles to secure airports against terrorists, it is neglecting the nation's most vulnerable gateways — its 361 seaports.

Officials have moved to bolster coastline security since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. But the steps they've taken do little to address the problems that led a U.S. senator last year to call seaport security "an embarrassment" and a danger to national defense.

Among the problems identified in interviews, documents and a Seattle Times analysis of government data:

• Of the 11 million shipping containers coming into the nation's ports, only about 1 percent are inspected. At some ports in other countries, all incoming cargo is inspected.

• The overstretched U.S. Coast Guard, on average, inspects a port facility only once every two years.

• Cruise ships, some with as many as 5,000 passengers and crew, present especially vulnerable and inviting targets.

Addressing these issues and others is a daunting task.

In recent years, officials at ports around the country — including the Port of Seattle — have resisted any uniform federal standards for security. Now, with legislation under consideration in Congress, tougher standards are inevitable — but they could get softened in the effort to protect commerce.

As Port of Seattle spokesman Mick Shultz puts it: "There's very much a business mindset at U.S. ports, and certainly here in Seattle. We see our role as an economic engine."

America's porous ports

The laxity of American seaports has long been an open secret among smugglers. For decades, they have used boats and shipping containers to bring drugs into the United States. In the 1990s, the smuggled cargo expanded to include humans, especially Chinese, who paid tens of thousands of dollars to enter this country illegally.

Desperate immigrants are not alone in using the huge cargo containers. Two weeks ago, inspectors in Italy found a suspected al-Qaida terrorist hiding in a shipping container equipped with a bed and makeshift bathroom. The suspect, an Egyptian in a business suit, had with him a Canadian passport, a laptop computer, two cell phones, airport maps, security passes for airports in three countries and a certificate proclaiming him an airplane mechanic. The container was headed for Toronto.

Osama bin Laden maintains a secret shipping fleet flying a variety of flags of convenience, allowing him to hide his ownership and transport goods, arms, drugs and recruits with little official scrutiny, according to recent reports and court testimony. In 1998, one of bin Laden's cargo freighters unloaded supplies in Kenya for the suicide bombers who weeks later destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"Virtually every time a ship docks, the only people who know what is on a container are the people who shipped it and the people picking it up," said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, during testimony before a presidential commission last year. "And if those people are terrorists, they are free to ship munitions and weapons overseas to their compatriots or even set off a bomb."

Security arrangements at the nation's seaports are similar to those at its airports: Private companies provide the front-line defense against trouble.

Terminal operators, usually shipping companies, determine the number, qualifications and pay of the security guards they hire. Operators are required by federal law to file security plans with the local U.S. Coast Guard office, which can order changes and fine or shut down those that don't comply.

In general, the Coast Guard patrols the waterways, the U.S. Customs Service spot-checks international cargo and the Immigration and Naturalization Service reviews the visa status of cruise-ship passengers and crews.

The local port authorities serve mainly as landlords, leasing out terminals to private companies. One Florida port official compared the arrangement to a shopping mall, where mall security polices public space and each store provides its own security.

The difference, of course, is that the stakes at seaports are much higher.

In 1999, a special presidential commission looked at 12 seaports around the country, including Tacoma's but not Seattle's, and found alarming inadequacies. Those included unfenced cargo yards, poorly trained security guards and insufficient standards for workers with access to sensitive areas.

Since Sept. 11, the Coast Guard has stepped up patrols around the country, activating 2,700 reservists nationwide and requiring ships to give 96 hours' notice before pulling into ports. In some cases, Coast Guard officers are boarding vessels to check cargo and crew identification miles before the ships enter harbors.

How secure is Seattle?

Five cargo companies dominate Port of Seattle operations, occupying dozens of acres along the waterfront. The Port also manages the increasingly busy cruise-ship terminal on Bell Street, projected to handle 250,000 passengers next year.

All U.S. ports must comply with various federal regulations such as how to store explosive substances and where to station guards to provide "adequate surveillance" of facilities.

But federal code does not set a minimum standard for security plans. The adequacy of those plans is left to the judgment of the local Coast Guard captain of the port, who weighs them against the perceived threat to the port at any given time.

Records indicate that before last month's attacks, the threat of terrorism was considered remote. In the nine previous years, the Puget Sound Coast Guard repeatedly inspected companies at seven ports and two oil refineries, and issued only four formal citations for security violations. (At least two informal warnings also were issued during that time, according to Coast Guard officials.)

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Coast Guard looked again at security plans for those facilities and cited 30 of them as deficient. All cited have addressed the problems, said Mike Moore, Coast Guard captain of the port.

Some ports, such as Los Angeles and Port Everglades in Florida, are considering requiring their tenants to provide better security before leases are renewed. Port of Seattle officials said last week they were not pondering such a change, but on Friday said they might.

The Coast Guard wants the Seattle Port to do more.

"Each port has to make its own decision about what services it's going to provide," said Capt. Moore. "The Port of Seattle has decided not to do much security in their budget."

Spokesman Shultz defends the Port's stance, saying there have been no specific threats against the Seattle facilities that would require extraordinary measures beyond what federal agencies mandate.

Moore thinks more is needed.

"Clearly, the baseline that was acceptable before Sept. 11 is going to change," Moore said. "The risk, the threat and the vulnerability is higher than previously thought."

Los Angeles more aggressive

The Port of Los Angeles takes a more aggressive posture toward security.

Since Sept. 11, cargo ships entering the harbor are given an armed escort, with officers from the Port and the Coast Guard going aboard, securing the engine room and bridge, screening crew members and spot-checking cargo. Even more attention is paid to cruise ships.

"Our biggest target for terrorism is our passenger-cruise terminal," said Noel Cunningham, operations director and the port's former chief of police. "Based on what has happened in New York and other attacks, they want to destroy the business of Americans traveling and their sense of security. They don't seem to care if they're civilians. According to my discussions with the FBI and Coast Guard, they seem to be a very likely target."

Cruise ships are essentially floating hotels, with as many as 5,000 passengers densely packed in a steel-plated shell. At a port or in a shipping lane, suicide terrorists using a small, fast boat laden with explosives could quickly tie up at a ship near its vast fuel tanks and ignite a holocaust.

"A successful terrorist attack on any one of these ships could result in a catastrophic number of casualties and threaten the economic viability of the entire industry," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James M. Loy said in June.

In Los Angeles, cruise ships get armed escorts into harbor. While they are approaching the port, no other ships are allowed to move. And once docked, they are flanked by Coast Guard and police boats.

"We're not going to have a USS Cole situation here," Cunningham said, referring to the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Navy destroyer last year during a refueling stop in Yemen. The attack, launched from an explosives-laden tugboat, killed 17 sailors.

Seattle's protection for cruise ships has been stepped up, with Port or Coast Guard boats patrolling the harbor and a boat stationed alongside ships at dock.

But procedures are looser than in L.A. The Coast Guard's Moore said the differences can be attributed in part to the physical layouts of the facilities and the waterways leading up to them — but there is also a clear difference in philosophy toward security.

In Seattle, there are no escorts into the harbor, armed or unarmed. Unlike in L.A., other ship traffic is permitted while cruise vessels are arriving. Shipping "is a time-sensitive business," said Port spokesman Shultz, and "companies don't want (ships) sitting at anchor or at berth. If it's sitting there, it's not making money."

"It's also a matter of what's a likely target," he said. "Port Everglades (Florida), Port of Miami, Port of Los Angeles, any number of other ports have a much larger presence in the cruise industry than the Port of Seattle. As that presence increases, we could very well see a different approach for the cruise vessels here in Seattle."

Cunningham, the L.A. port's operations director, said the stringent measures imposed there are worth the cost and the inconvenience, and are ultimately good for business.

"We found that we are able to convince our customers — the container companies and the other port users — that a dollar saved now is not a dollar earned in the future," he said, noting that one incident resulting from cut corners could mean that the criminals would own the port.

"We have a 90-day or four-month window of opportunity to shore up security in our ports, and we better do it," he said. "We better do it now because there will people waiting for that moment to pass so it can be business as usual."

Two years ago, the presidential seaport commission estimated each port would need to spend $44 million to provide state-of-the-art security. The commission's reform recommendations failed in Congress, with officials from many ports — including Seattle — saying it was too expensive and unneeded. As recently as this summer, the American Association of Port Authorities went on record opposing a revised version of the reform bill.

Since Sept. 11, however, reform efforts are getting more serious consideration with less dissent.

The Port of Seattle's executive director, Mic Dinsmore, will travel to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with congressional and Department of Transportation officials about new methods and ideas for security.

"I'm not satisfied that we as a port and we as a nation are doing everything we need to do in the way of security, both at airports and seaports," Dinsmore said Friday. "I'm not satisfied that the nation has thought this through thoroughly enough."

Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Neff and Justin Mayo contributed to this article. Reporter Susan Kelleher can be reached at 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com.

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