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Technology Aids US Officials in Complex Task of Maintaining Port Security - 2003-08-10


Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and U.S. Pentagon nearly two years ago, American officials have been working to identify other possible targets of terrorism. They've pointed to the nation's three major ports as being especially vulnerable. These include the New York-New Jersey port on the East Coast, and on the West Coast, ports at Los Angeles-Long Beach, California and Seattle-Tacoma, Washington. Nancy Beardsley visited the Port of Seattle to find out how security policies are changing in response to those concerns.

Ships from around the world sail in and out of ports like Seattle every day, posing a security challenge very different from that facing even America's busiest airports. Mick Schultz, Media Officer for the Port of Seattle, said "Typically an airport is a space you can get your arms around. It's one piece of land with an airfield, with runways and one or several terminal buildings, and you can secure that perimeter. And once people and their luggage enter that perimeter there are a number of steps you can take, and even a big piece of luggage can be inspected in a variety of ways. At a port like Seattle, if you combine Seattle and the port of Tacoma, you're looking at about three million container moves a year, most of them in the neighborhood of 40 feet long. You cannot open all these containers and take everything out of them to make sure that what the manifest says is what the container actually has in it."

It was with that challenge in mind that Patty Murray, a U.S. Senator from Washington state, last year announced plans for Operation Safe Commerce. The pilot program combines public and private resources to enhance security at America's three largest ports. "More than six million cargo containers enter the U.S. each year," she said. "We don't know much about what's in those containers, where they come from, or where they're going. It is very clear we need a system to help track and monitor container cargo from the point of origin to the ultimate destination."

Just a few weeks ago, Senator Murray successfully fought to make sure funds weren't diverted from Operation Safe Commerce to other programs. Todd Webster, the Senator's communications director, said the initiative is critically important for two reasons.

"An incident at one of our ports could have catastrophic impacts on the rest of the country, not being able to get goods on shelves. But in particular the Port of Seattle is located in downtown Seattle. There are roads and highways and buildings and offices and homes close to the port. If you had an incident at the Port of Seattle, there would be dramatic impacts throughout the community and potential loss of life," Mr. Webster said.

Calling Operation Safe Commerce a "port security" measure is somewhat misleading, says Port of Seattle spokesman Mick Schultz. He believes efforts to prevent a terrorist attack on international ports must have a global reach. "Securing your port facilities is important. But even more vital than that is making sure that the cargo itself and the vessels that carry it are secure, beginning from the point where the container is loaded, perhaps at a factory somewhere in Asia, and then making sure that what is supposed to go in that container and only what is supposed to go in that container is loaded into it. And then from the factory where it's loaded, along the truck route or the rail route to the port, then aboard the ship and then to the U.S., we want to make sure that container is not tampered with, that no contraband or explosives or any other tools a terrorist might use are loaded into that container. So there are a variety of methods for doing that," Mr. Schultz said.

Security concerns prevent officials from talking too specifically about the technology and techniques being tested for Operation Safe Commerce. But Mick Schultz says the procedures now being used include gamma ray technology. A device called a vacis scans containers looking for suspicious cargo. Mr. Schultz said "you look at the manifest and say, 'This is a supposedly a container full of furniture.' And if the scan doesn't look like furniture you say, 'Hmm, maybe we need to take another look at this.' The Customs Service has also implemented something they call the 24 hour rule. That rule states that 24 hours before cargo bound for the U.S. leaves the overseas port, the shippers have to submit their manifests to the U.S. Customs Service. And if it raises any red flags, 'They can say, 'Don't put that container on the ship. Don't send it over here.'"

The Port of Seattle has also taken the lead in implementing a device pioneered by the Savi Technology company in California. For years Savi has been developing techniques that track electronically the contents and location of containers shipped around the world. Now the company offers an additional tool to aid port authorities concerned that bombs or other lethal materials might be smuggled into the United States. Savi executive officer Vic Verma explained, "Our technology allowed us to add an electronic seal as well as sensors that can tell you if the container has been opened or closed and if something has been added into the container or if somebody has tampered with the contents of the container. That will let a reader know, which will then alert the appropriate person. Their cell phone or pager will ring and say, 'This particular container has been tampered with at this time at this location. Are you sure this was an authorized tampering or not?'"

Vic Verma also stressed that the more other ports join the Port of Seattle in using the technology, the better it will work. "If you do not get a critical mass of ports using the same infrastructure, you end up having no infrastructure. So what the goal has been is to ensure that a critical mass of ports start to adopt very similar or standardized technology," he said.

Efforts to ensure port security also continue within the United States. The U.S. Congress has approved funds to expand Operation Safe Commerce from Seattle and the two other major U.S. ports to smaller ports around the country.

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