Ports Called ‘Enormous Target’

Times Staff Writer

Two miles out from the nation’s busiest seaport, Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Ryan gives the order to board a giant container ship bound for Los Angeles.

The Sealand Intrepid, Singapore-registered and longer than three football fields, is carrying a load of general cargo. But its last stop was Panama, a hot spot for stowaways.

One by one in choppy seas, Ryan’s four-man Coast Guard crew climbs a 20-foot rope ladder and a 20-foot gangway to board the vessel. Wearing bulletproof vests and armed with 9-millimeter pistols, two sea marshals comb the ship and two head for the bridge to secure the vessel.

On average, this scene is repeated six times a day, seven days a week at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle 45% of the nation’s container cargo. Sea marshals board container vessels, oil tankers, cruise ships, even commuter boats as part of a nationwide Coast Guard program launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For all the concern about safety at the nation’s airports, counterterrorism officials and other experts say the nation’s ports may now present an even greater threat. Since Sept. 11, they have received far less security funding than airports, yet they continue to process far more cargo -- more than 9.5 million containers a year.


During this fall’s presidential campaign, Democrat Sen. John F. Kerry repeatedly warned about the safety of the nation’s ports, telling voters that only 5% of all incoming cargo was inspected.

Homeland Security officials denied Kerry’s charge. They said they screen 100% of containers as part of a new “layered” system of defense that begins overseas, where foreign shippers must provide full cargo and crew manifests 24 hours before loading any ship bound for the U.S.

But after these manifests are examined, mountains of shipping intelligence are sifted and ships are tracked as they cross oceans, only about 6% of the containers arriving at U.S. ports are classified as high risk and examined using X-ray machines, officials said. Locally, about 6% of the containers scanned by X-ray are further inspected by hand.

With about 12,000 containers a day arriving at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, this means officials scan about 720 containers and inspect roughly 43 by hand daily.

“Even though there were manifests, some of us got the sense we really didn’t know what was coming and going,” said Dale Watson, former FBI head of counterterrorism and now an executive at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. “It was a huge problem.”

Randy Parsons, the FBI’s chief counterterrorism official in Los Angeles and six surrounding counties, echoed Watson’s concern. “If you look at where we are today, there has been notable improvement in terms of security at the ports,” he said. “But it is just such an enormous target in terms of the volume of cargo and the numbers of employees and the crews and the ships moving in from foreign lands.”

Another veteran counterterrorism agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity was blunter. “If I was Al Qaeda and I was looking for a hit, that is exactly where I would look,” the agent said.

In a 2002 war game that involved top federal policymakers, Booz Allen presented the following scenario:

A huge shipping container passes through security at the Port of Los Angeles before it falls off a truck and inspectors discover a hidden radiological bomb.

Word quickly arrives that the Port of Savannah has arrested three men on an FBI watch list. One of the men, linked to Al Qaeda, tells authorities he is among several teams of terrorists targeting U.S. ports.

Quickly, authorities shut down all the nation’s ports and border crossings. Then another dirty bomb is discovered, this one near Minneapolis.

Gas prices skyrocket because fuel ships cannot unload. The Dow drops 500 points. After 12 days, U.S. ports reopen, but the total cost to the U.S. economy is $58 billion.

It may sound alarmist. But at a hearing in Washington early this year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called America’s ports “the soft underbelly of our nation’s security.” Her biggest concern? Terrorists attacking a port with a dirty bomb.

Complex Challenges

In his Terminal Island office, Coast Guard Capt. Peter V. Neffenger is staring at an aerial photo of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, gateway for nearly half of the containerized goods that enter the U.S.

He is the man ultimately responsible for safeguarding the world’s third-busiest port complex and authorized, under federal law, to shut down the harbor, if needed, to protect it.

No port complex poses more challenges than this one. There are plenty of entry points. There is easy access to the port by sea and land. And its terminals are clustered together.

Alone, the Long Beach or Los Angeles ports would be the largest in the U.S. Together, they handle more than 1 million cruise passengers and $200 billion in trade annually, including half the petroleum products used in the Western U.S.

“It could make you go batty when you talk about security here,” said Neffenger, who has a degree from the Naval War College in national security and strategic studies.

“It’s not impossible. But it is daunting.”

Before Sept. 11, fewer than 2% of the Coast’s Guard vessels and crews were assigned to port security in the U.S. When crews boarded ships, it was almost always to inspect their seaworthiness, not for national security. Today, Neffenger said, there is no greater priority.

Long before ships are allowed to unload cargo, Neffenger’s crews of sea marshals weigh such factors as a vessel’s home port, cargo, last stop and crew to select which ships will be boarded for inspections.

The vast majority of incoming cargo is considered secure because huge corporations and international shippers have instituted their own safety checks and inspections.

The government estimates that about 40% of cargo heading for the U.S. is shipped by about 7,000 businesses worldwide that are cooperating with U.S. authorities to improve defenses against terrorists.

That leaves Homeland Security officials concentrating on the pieces of the supply chain that would be easiest for extremists to exploit.

Out at sea, Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan’s crew boards ship after ship. “We don’t have high-interest vessels come in every day, but we will board ships every day,” said Ryan, 34.

A sturdy ex-Marine who served in Desert Storm, Ryan joined the Coast Guard seven years ago. After the Sept. 11 attacks, everything changed.

“On Sept. 10, we were running search and rescue missions,” he said. “On Sept. 11, we started security patrols. It’s amazing how fast everyone could change jobs and change directions.”

High-Risk Cargo

On land, at just one terminal in the Port of Long Beach, 132 containers are lined up in rows like giant pieces of luggage, waiting to be scanned.

This is the high-risk cargo identified by officials from the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency.

Their search begins 24 hours before any U.S.-bound ships are loaded in foreign ports, when Customs and Border Protection agents receive electronic copies of each ship’s cargo manifest.

The information is sent to the department’s National Targeting Center in northern Virginia, established after the Sept. 11 attacks. There, experts in customs, immigration and agriculture compare the manifests against terrorism intelligence, law enforcement files and data on commercial shipments to the U.S. during the last 20 years.

“The risk assessment begins with every container, the crew, the vessel, the carrier,” said Vera Adams, port director for the Customs and Border Protection agency. “The myth is that there is greater value in [inspecting] greater numbers of containers. But why would we waste time and resources looking at things if we have determined they are low risk” for terrorism?

The information collected by the National Targeting Center is transmitted to Homeland Security officers so they can, if warranted, inspect the contents of containers bound for the U.S.

En route, authorities said, ships are monitored by Homeland Security so they can be intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard far from land, if anomalies have been detected in the crew, cargo or itinerary.

When ships arrive, the high-risk containers are sent for screening before they are allowed to leave the ports.

At the Long Beach terminal, inspectors move their truck, containing a giant X-ray machine, alongside each of the 132 containers and bombard it with gamma rays, looking for anything unusual. The dark image of a dense material like steel, for example, would raise concern if the container were supposed to be carrying carpets.

If agents cannot tell what exactly is inside a container, it is driven to a Homeland Security warehouse and opened.

“When in doubt, when we can’t figure it out, we send it to the warehouse,” Adams said.

At one warehouse in Carson, inspectors scour the contents of each container flagged during scanning. Using dogs that can detect explosives, drugs and other contraband, inspectors comb through vast scatterings of goods, some of which are taken in crates to another X-ray machine.

“The advantage we have here is time,” said inspection supervisor Rolando Knight.

From Los Angeles to Washington, many analysts and officials view port security as a race against time. But leaders of the Department of Homeland Security say they are moving as fast as they can to protect the ports without bringing them to a standstill.

“People ask me, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ ” Capt. Neffenger said. “Well, it isn’t that something might happen here. After 23 years with the Coast Guard, I know you can’t prevent everything. It’s worrying that we didn’t do enough to catch it. And that we weren’t fully able to respond.”