Commentary: Freight Transport: Safe from Terror?

With its heavy traffic and massive chemical-storage tanks, the Port of Houston would seem a tempting target for terrorists. Touring the site in January, Senator John Breaux (D-La.) asked what had been done to protect the 25-mile-long seaway. A Coast Guard official assured him that the harbor had been declared a security zone. Breaux was unimpressed. "That's like putting a `No Trespassing' sign on a nuclear reactor," he said.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Washington scrambled to shore up aviation security with tough new passenger- and baggage-screening laws and criminal-background checks on airport workers. But half a year later, U.S. land and sea borders remain almost as vulnerable as ever. Lawmakers hot to jump on the homeland-security bandwagon a few months ago have succumbed to inertia, leaving the nation's most at-risk transportation systems unprotected. "There has been a gross lack of focus," says Edward Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO's transportation-trades division.

Altogether, trains, trucks, and ships move more than $1 trillion worth of freight--about 99% of all U.S. cargo--into the country every year. Seaports, which handle some $700 billion of that cargo, are the first line of vulnerability. If a disruption at one of the country's 361 ports leads the U.S. government to shut them down the way it grounded air traffic in September, it would bring some $2 billion a day in seaborne trade to a dead stop and instantly cripple the domestic economy.

Today, port "security" means little more than a few miles of fencing and the occasional container search. Despite stepped-up patrols by Coast Guard and Customs agents after September 11, ships sail freely in and out of the nation's inland and coastal ports. The network relies on an honor system: It's up to carriers to announce their arrivals and disclose their hauls. Federal agents search only about 2% of the 11 million containers that make their way through the U.S. maritime system each year--double the pre-September 11 rate but still frighteningly low. "You have a ship with 7,000 containers on it, and what do we do? Check the manifest," laments Representative Don Young (R-Ala.), chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which is working on a port-security bill. "We're taking containers from Pakistan, and we don't know what's in them."

Lawmakers may be indignant, but their efforts to plug security gaps have been few and ill-fated. In December, the Senate, led by Commerce Committee Chairman Earnest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), passed a $4 billion wish list of grants and loans to buy equipment to search more incoming cargo containers. Hollings' bill also would toughen hiring standards by requiring maritime workers to pass a criminal-background check similar to one imposed on nearly all airport workers.

However, the idea of eliminating felons from the workforce, a provision that sailed through Congress as part of an aviation-security bill last year, has come under fire from labor, including the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO-affiliated longshoremen. They say requiring no felony convictions as a prerequisite to holding a job amounts to double jeopardy for workers who have already paid their dues to society.

Industry has its own problems with the idea. As a major player at U.S. ports, the American Trucking Assn. supports criminal-background checks but fears its members could be sued by disgruntled job applicants denied work because of something that showed up on their record. The ATA wants protection from liability. It also worries that a background check involving multiple agencies will prove time-consuming and costly.

In the House, Young has labeled the Hollings measure "stupid" because it puts the onus on the U.S. government to search every incoming vessel instead of forcing overseas transportation centers such as China and Panama to boost their own security. But Young's vision has problems of its own. He is seeking to establish an entirely new cargo-information tracking system under the Transportation Dept., duplicating work already being done by Customs and adding another layer to the multi-agency bureaucracy that now regulates container traffic. "Neither shippers, carriers, nor the government would be served by competing cargo-information systems," says Christopher L. Koch, president and CEO of the World Shipping Council in Washington.

Lawmakers--lacking the attention span or the willpower necessary to sort out freight's complexities--seem inclined to settle on politically expedient legislation that emphasizes high-tech gadgetry, spot container searches, and other piecemeal fixes. Such an approach could derail container-traffic flow as dramatically as a terrorist attack. "It would grind the U.S. economy to a halt," says Jonathan Gold, trade-policy director at the International Mass Retailers Assn.

As Congress treads water, the next-best option is emerging in the U.N., where the Coast Guard is pushing new international standards for container inspection, worker licensing, sea marshals, and a long-overdue system for tracking ships at sea. It's an ambitious goal, and one that requires U.S. cooperation. "If we ask these foreign ports to put security measures in place, then we have to be prepared to do the same thing here," Gold says. Whether it's motivated by fear or by shame, Congress must push harder for secure transportation systems.

By Lorraine Woellert

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