This month, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security absorbed many U.S. agencies devoted to public safety, including those responsible for security at airports and seaports. Officials say terrorism remains a threat to both.
It is a nightmare scenario, terrorists concealing a nuclear device in one of the thousands of cargo containers that arrive here each day. Vera Adams is interim port director for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which March 1 became a part of the new Department of Homeland Security.
She says a terrorist incident, at this or another port, would be disastrous for world trade. "What it will do is cause the United States to want to examine every container coming in this direction to make sure that there aren't any more devices in any more containers," she says. "And that's why we say that no matter where such an incident occurs in the world, it will shut down the entire global trading system."
Critics say only two percent of incoming cargo is screened today. Not true, says Ms. Adams, who argues that her department's "layered" screening system scrutinizes all cargo in different ways. Cargo manifests and crew lists of arriving ships are now transmitted to port authorities before the ship's arrival.
Crew members are checked for possible criminal records and cargo is evaluated to determine what threat it poses, explains Lieutenant Kyle Maki, a Coast Guard Sea Marshall. In his regular job, Mr. Maki is a special agent for the U.S. Department of Justice. He was part of the Coast Guard Reserves and has been called to active duty at the ports. "We're looking at vessels. We're looking at size, the last time it was inspected, the crew, last port of call, a lot of these things that we take into consideration and rate the risk based upon that," he says.
Customs officials say just 1,000 importers, including major retailers like Wal-Mart, send 60 percent of incoming cargo, and they say cargo sent by a known shipper from a low-risk port presents a low level of threat.
But anything out of the ordinary is scrutinized more closely, using scanners mounted on trucks to look at cargo with X-rays or gamma-rays without opening containers.
"Obviously, we're looking for weapons of mass destruction, any kind of terrorist implements, any kind of contraband, narcotics as well," says Marlene Figueroa, a supervisory Customs Bureau inspector. "Our priority, of course, is implements of terror. Luckily, we haven't found anything. We don't want to find any implements of terror. But if we do, we will take all the necessary precautions."
Customs inspector Paul Puletz displays a variety of devices to detect radiation, including a personal detector, worn on the belt. "It gives you a reading between zero and nine, nine being a highly active radioactive source, zero being nothing more than background radiation," he says. Another machine identifies trace amounts of explosives.
Offshore, a Coast Guard ship patrols the adjoining harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach, inspecting ships when needed and staying on the lookout for suspicious activity.
Lieutenant Shad Thomas, commanding officer of the 27-meter cutter Halibut, says the Coast Guard has always enforced sea law, conducted search and rescue operations and ensured port security. "And now that we're part of homeland security, we are stepping up our port security mission, which has always been a Coast Guard mission," he says. "It's also important to point out, though, that we're keeping all our other missions, such as search and rescue and maritime law enforcement."
On a hill overlooking the port, observers monitor radar screens. They are part of another component of the port's security program. This Vessel Traffic Center is a cooperative organization involving shippers and the Coast Guard. Started 80 years ago, it monitors the comings and going of vessels up to 50 kilometers from shore. A new satellite system will soon extend that range.
Retired Navy Captain Dick McKenna, the center's deputy director, says its focus has shifted somewhat since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "Whereas this was initially safety, it's just like the Coast Guard position. Now they've got an equal priority in security," he says. "So this is a very front-line-of-defense business as far as they're concerned."
Customs official Vera Adams says the goal of the new Department of Homeland Security is to harden ports as targets, which she says has been done at the port of Los Angeles. "Certainly we have hardened it to an extreme degree without, however, disrupting the smooth flow of cargo through this port," she says. "As anyone can say, though, no border is absolutely foolproof. The only way to foolproof a border is to close the border. And that, we know that we cannot do."
In the future, officials say, cargo will be increasingly checked at its port of origin, as U.S. customs officials extend a handful of current agreements with their overseas counterparts. The United States has already signed accords with Canada, Holland, Singapore, Germany, France, and Belgium allowing U.S. inspectors in those countries, to speed the flow of cargo bound for the United States.