A terrorist attack involving a dirty bomb hidden in a cargo container wouldn't have to match the human toll of Sept. 11, 2001, to be effective. Shutting down even a few of the largest ports would have a devastating economic effect, so it's puzzling that so little is being spent to avoid such a catastrophe.
Oceangoing freighters will offload more than 9 million cargo containers at U.S. ports this year. Until we can know with certainty what's inside them, the boxes will remain, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner has said, "the potential Trojan horse of the 21st century."
Some progress is being made. The major foreign ports have agreed to give U.S. customs agents 24 hours' notice before U.S.-bound containers are loaded, and the port of Dubai on Monday became the first port in the Middle East to join the program. The United States also is dispatching customs agents to the world's busiest ports to establish offices. Shipping companies and cargo handlers around the world are completing self-evaluations to help identify weaknesses that terrorists might try to exploit.
But big problems remain, and most are tied to who's going to foot the bill for added security. Private industry, including manufacturers, parts suppliers and retailers whose goods flow through publicly financed ports, should shoulder a fair share of the financial burden, which means consumers ultimately will pay more for their goods. Government also must play a role. The Coast Guard estimates the cost of security improvements needed at U.S. ports at more than $5 billion over the coming decade. Others, though, set the final cost at closer to $15 billion. Yet Congress this month approved just a third of the $400 million that port operators -- most of them public agencies with already tight operating budgets -- had set as the bare minimum of federal money needed to help cover security costs during the 2005 fiscal year.
Congress' miserly approach is at odds with the importance of ocean shipping in global trade. More than 90% of non-North American foreign trade arrives on ships. It would be relatively easy to disrupt that trade, to devastating effect. As part of a 2002 war game, a consulting firm estimated that the U.S. economy would suffer a $58-billion hit if a terrorist threat -- not even an actual attack -- forced all oceangoing ports to close for two weeks. Yet all but 10% of the Transportation Security Administration's funding goes toward making airports safe.
Waiting for containers to arrive and then inspecting them isn't the answer. Keeping U.S. ports safe will require accurately tracking millions of containers from the moment they're filled. A notice of 24 hours won't mean much if what's in the container doesn't match what's printed on the shipping bill.
A truly effective system is going to be expensive. Failing to build it could be many times more costly.