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Easy targets invite terror at U.S. ports

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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.

A Sun reporter casually entered open warehouses, cargo handling areas and chemical tank farms for six hours last week before being challenged by Baltimore police at a railroad tanker yard on Fort Avenue. A return visit this week found conditions largely unchanged.

Among the potentially hazardous substances encountered along the way: glycol ether, urea, liquefied gases and numerous unmarked storage tanks that lacked even standard warning stickers designed to assist firefighters in the event of an emergency.

"God knows what's out here," says one senior U.S. Customs official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And security is so fractured that it's totally piecemeal across the port."

Mayor Martin O'Malley says Baltimore police have been working overtime since Sept. 11 to patrol the port perimeter, but adds, "They can't possibly make up for all the security issues over there.

"We've been meeting with the industry folks and the state agencies, and no one is denying that they've got a problem. But all of them are saying it's an expense they'd rather not bear. ... Somebody is going to have to step up to the plate soon, because the city is doing all it can."

Says Judi Scioli, port spokeswoman: "We doubled the manpower levels of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. We beefed up security at the gate. We increased police, guard dogs and scanners in our cruise operations.

"Progress has been made -- and there's not a person involved who doesn't agree that we've got to do more."

Even with these recent measures, Baltimore still fits an alarming national profile.

"Visit any port in America and you'll instantly get a sense of the size of this problem," says Kelly, who spent a year touring U.S. docks, cargo yards and warehouse complexes before the port commission issued its 259-page report to the president last fall.

"The general public, I think, is under the impression that these facilities are under some centralized control. They are not."

Rather, they are governed by a patchwork of state and local agencies, which consign away wide swaths of port facilities through leasing arrangements with U.S. and foreign corporations.

"Each one is its own little fiefdom, with lots of smaller fiefdoms running around inside," Kelly says. "All of them share jurisdiction, and none of them bears sole responsibility for the security issues."

Simply figuring out who is responsible for repairing a particular stretch of fencing, for example, can be a maddening exercise. Any one section of chain-link could fall under the control of a local port authority, a state agency, a rail concern or a private company subleasing space at the port from a corporate "stakeholder."

One company might require strict background checks of its employees and the wearing of ID badges; another sharing the same dock or warehouse complex might employ dozens of undocumented stevedores.

More importantly, active security patrols -- where they exist at all -- are most often unarmed "rent-a-cops," says Jack Blum, an internal security expert.

"The federal presence is minimal -- a handful of Customs and Immigration [and Naturalization Service] inspectors in most instances," Kelly says. "And the Coast Guard, generally, only has jurisdiction over the waterway, not the landside operation."

The military has activated about 2,000 reservists to shore up waterfront security nationwide, resorting in some places to rubber rafts full of armed sailors.

Says O'Malley: "The Coast Guard will shoot you right now if you try to come in by water" into Baltimore, homeport of a large military sealift fleet.

But under questioning before the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee, Coast Guard Adm. James W. Underwood -- director of intelligence for the Department of Transportation -- testified Oct. 2 that he had no idea who was in charge of land security at most ports.

"You don't know who does that?" asked Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. "I'm astounded that you don't know the answer to that question."

The problem, Kelly says, is that Congress has given federal agencies very little authority to intervene in the day-to-day affairs of local ports -- some of which have been all but completely leased out to private firms by state governments.

"All these security functions [are] in the hands of state agencies and private industry," Kelly says. "And in most cases, they simply have not met even the bare minimum of reasonable security precautions."

Among the more surprising findings of the investigation at 12 of the nation's shipping hubs:

  • Seven allowed the parking of private vehicles near vessels, warehouses and passenger terminals -- which, Kelly notes, creates ideal conditions for truck bombings, smuggling and terrorist infiltration of cargo and cruise ships.

  • None had a policy governing who may carry guns at their facilities. None used video cameras or alarms to prevent casual access to sensitive cargo and equipment.

  • Five did not have a fully trained and equipped security force, and only two could sustain high security conditions for more than seven days in an emergency.

  • None restricted access to cruise line passenger terminals and baggage-handling areas by port employees, many of whom have never received even a cursory criminal background check.

Says Cross, now a private risk assessment consultant in Tampa, Fla.: "I have a huge concern right now with the cruise line industry. They've done a pretty good job of tightening up their own act in the past few years, but they're at the mercy of local port authorities when it comes to general access to their vessels and facilities.

"Some of these ships hold 5,000-plus passengers, and they're extremely vulnerable to infiltration, hijacking, bombs, what have you. The terrorism networks have a long history of targeting these things, but all of our attention is focused on airliners that hold 250 people."

Vessels large and small

These larger "superliners" are required by Coast Guard regulators to meet security requirements similar to those imposed on airlines. But smaller vessels -- ferries, gambling showboats and cruise ships operating in U.S. waters -- are exempt.

In 1988, terrorists struck one such vessel off the coast of Athens. Posing as day tourists, they boarded the liner City of Poros, waited until it put to sea, then pulled machine guns and grenades from their backpacks and swept the lounges and deck areas.

Nine passengers died and 98 were injured.

About 10 million people embark on cruise ships every year, and eight out of 10 are Americans. Crews are almost entirely foreign nationals.

In the Oct. 2 Senate hearings, Breaux questioned how cruise lines could possibly screen their overseas crews to weed out terrorists or corrupt sailors who might assist them.

Breaux noted that a recent investigation in Panama uncovered a bribery scheme in which maritime officials sold crew papers to unqualified sailors for cash.

"If you're hiring them from Panama's maritime authority," Breaux said, "you don't know who in the hell they are. ... How do you verify who in the heck thousands of foreign sailors are?"

J. Michael Crye, representing the International Council of Cruise Lines, replied that captains employ overseas agencies to provide them with reputable sailors from countries with well-recognized maritime records and U.S. ties.

"You don't do any real checking further than that, do you?" Breaux pressed.

"As you know," Crye finally relented, "no system is completely fail-safe."

Joseph J. Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, squarely acknowledged that his industry is equally vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists masquerading as port workers or crew members.

But he noted that U.S. consumer appetite for overseas goods -- an average of about 5 million tons per day -- creates enormous demand for maritime manpower.

"The United States consumes somewhere near ... 750 million gallons of oil per day," Cox offered as one example, adding that almost half of it arrives on ships with foreign crews, and much of it originates in countries that are hotbeds of anti-U.S. sentiment.

Further, he noted, nine out of 10 cargo vessels in service today are owned by foreign concerns.

"We have a maritime community where the ship owner can be one nationality," Cox testified. "The vessel can be another nationality ... the mortgage bankers can be a third nationality, the actual operator of the ship -- the people on board the ship as officers and the people on board as crew -- can all be different nationalities.

"We have asked [captains], and they have told us that they are controlling access to their vessels to the extent that they can."

All of which, says Prager, greatly increases the importance of ground security and cargo inspection at U.S. seaports -- and the probability of a major terrorist event because security provisions are at their lowest ebb "since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor."

"It's a disaster waiting to happen," he says.

Among worst-case scenarios explored in congressional hearings: a suicide ship bombing similar to last year's attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that could transform a liquid natural gas tanker into a dockside weapon of mass destruction.

"That's the ultimate FAE -- every terrorist's dream," Prager says. "In counter-terrorism, we call it 'the poor man's atomic bomb.' "

Getting worse for years

Jack Blum, a former special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observes that the breaches in the nation's basic security net have been widening for years.

But the federal agencies most knowledgeable on the subject are poorly positioned to deal with the crisis.

"U.S. Customs is the obvious agency to step in and take control of the mess in the ports," he says, echoing members of Congress, insurance underwriters and corporate security consultants. "But that agency has been shredded by downsizing, hiring freezes and underfunding through the past five administrations.

"It's the same throughout federal law enforcement. Their computer systems are falling apart. Thirty percent of the work force will reach retirement in the next five years. ... They're losing institutional memory gained in three wars, at the worst possible time."

A long line of audit reports by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, bears him out. Among key findings over the past five years:

  • Customs' 8,000 inspectors have been overwhelmed by a doubling in cargo volume since 1997, but there has been no increase in the inspection's work force.About 11 million containers cross import docks annually, an average of 19 per minute, but less than 3 percent are opened before being hauled away on trucks and trains nationwide."We found guys who had been living in those containers for a month -- Chinese immigrants, illegals, 30 or 40 of them in a truck container," says John F. Forbes, a recently retired senior U.S. Customs agent at Port Newark in New Jersey."If you want to launch a terrorism attack on the U.S., forget about flying your people here," he says. "All you have to do is ship them here in containers."Likewise, weapons, explosives or biological agents.Dean Boyd, a spokesman at Customs headquarters in Washington, says the agency has been spending $5 million a week on overtime since Sept. 11 to increase inspections at airports and at border checkpoints in the Southwest. It has also detailed 1,000 investigators to the World Trade Center and Pentagon probes.He acknowledges, however, that the stepped-up inspections at "primary risk points" have forced the agency to slacken inspections at seaports.
  • Customs has repeatedly sought to rush development of X-ray machines and other technologies designed to quickly search trucks for contraband, bombs and stowaways since 1994. But competing proposals from multiple federal agencies have resulted in at least $30 million of prototype projects being scrapped or delayed over design disputes."None of it has any prospect of being practically operational any time soon," says Kelly. "But that hasn't stopped Congress and various administrations from using it as the justification for not hiring more inspectors."If we've learned anything from the tragedy of Sept. 11, it's that technology won't stop terrorism. You need more eyes, more ears, more feet on the ground," he says. "You damn sure need to be inspecting more than 3 percent of your inbound cargo."
  • Customs oversees more than 2 billion tons of goods per year with a decades-old mainframe computer, the Automated Commercial System. It tracks vessels and their cargo and is used by multiple federal agencies to target suspicious companies and shipments for investigation.That system is also on the verge of collapse.Scheduled to be replaced over the next 10 years at an expected cost of $1.4 billion, it has become so bogged down with data that its value as an intelligence-gathering tool has slumped -- leaving Customs agents ever more dependent on gumshoe detective work, informants, hunches and luck to stop smugglers.Prager, who was part of a special Customs detail that sought to slow illegal exports of U.S. military hardware through the Port of Miami, says the agency's computer crunch aggravates other failings in federal law enforcement."All of the agencies compete with each other," he says. "They run on separate computer systems, and they don't share anything if they can possibly help it, especially not information or intelligence."I spent 10 years at the Port of Miami, seizing shipments of automatic weapons, missile components, fighter aircraft components, all sorts of repair manuals for weapons systems, impellers for cluster bombs, spare parts for F-14s and Sidewinder missiles, inertial navigation systems, pieces of fire control radar systems, critical engineering software -- all of it headed for the Middle East."Prager describes as "fairly typical" one sting operation in 1997 in which his group busted a gang of smugglers offering to import shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles into Miami from Bulgaria."You'd think a whole lot of people in Washington would have been interested in that," he says. "But not once during those 10 years did I ever get a piece of actionable information from U.S. intelligence services. Not once. Not ever."Adds Blum: "Congress and the president have both called this 'a war' -- but you've got what amounts to a corporal's guard overseeing our most sensitive international facilities."Says Kelly, "If this is a war, and I believe that it is, we had better start acting like it."
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