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Are American Ports Safe?

President Bush signed a port security bill into law in October to strengthen security at America's ports. The legislation authorizes the development of technologies for screening cargo containers for dangerous materials and requires radiation detection technology at the country's 22 busiest ports. Experts fear that U.S. ports are vulnerable to terrorist attack, even with the heightened security implemented after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The large, bustling port of Miami teems with passengers and cargo ships arriving and departing from southern Florida. Officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency search cargo for drugs and suspicious items on containers from abroad. While anti-narcotics efforts had been the main focus in Miami, the attacks of September 11, 2001, put fighting terrorism on the forefront of security efforts.

Thomas Winkowski is the Director of Field Operations for the Miami office for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He says the government is working diligently to stop those who wish to do America harm, but acknowledges that no system will ever be able to eliminate the threat of a terrorist attack.

"The challenge that we have, of course, is simply they [i.e., would-be terrorists] are looking at ways of working around our systems. I'm not going to sit here and say it's foolproof. I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Gee, we will never sustain a terrorist attack.' I can't say that. I can say we got systems in place that, I think, can mitigate some of that. But the challenge is staying one step ahead of that terrorist," says Winkowski.

Security Beyond U.S. Borders

The federal government has instituted what it calls a "layered" approach to port security, including obtaining cargo manifests before ships leave foreign ports for the United States and developing international partnerships with importers and manufacturers to secure the flow of merchandise before it reaches U.S. shores. American inspectors are also at dozens of foreign ports on five continents examining cargo before it heads to the United States.

Winkowski says focusing security efforts beyond U.S. borders is critical. "We got to secure that supply chain from the facility where you manufactured the goods, to along the road to the terminal that it's going to be dropped off on, onto the ship, and here. If you got all these systems in place, but you don't know where the containers are and they're not secured properly, they don't [have] the right seals on [them], you don't have the importers buying in [i.e, fully embracing security measures], then you've created another gap that terrorists can take advantage of," says Winkowski.

But even in the post-9-11 world, there have been breeches in security, including migrants stowed away in shipping containers that have made it to the United States. Many experts fear terrorists could exploit these gaps and smuggle terror operatives, a radiological bomb or other weapons into the United States.

What Needs to be Done?

Jon Haveman, an expert on port security with the Public Policy Institute of California says, "There's still just an awful lot that remains to be done. So my best guess is to say that the ports are currently still quite vulnerable to either an attack or to use as a conduit for the movement of terrorist materiel or people through the ports and into the inland parts of the United States."

U.S. authorities do screen for radiation in containers, and the U.S. government has set a goal of having nearly all ship containers screened at overseas ports by next year. Jon Haveman says increased spending on port technologies is needed. He says it is very difficult to gauge exactly what is inside shipping containers and whether their contents are dangerous.

"The certainty with which we think we can detect a nuclear weapon or other materiel from terrorists is not very great. So there needs to be much better and much more investment in technology for both screening and scanning containers," says Haverman.

Keeping Commerce Flowing

Another area of concern is that five years after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, there is still not a standard, tamper-proof identification required for American port workers. The government has launched an initiative for such cards that would contain biometric data, such as fingerprints. But the program has stalled and has yet to be implemented. Experts say there are also no plans for what to do if the ports did have to be shutdown, including in the event of a terrorist attack. A case in point, they note, is the work stoppage at West coast ports in 2002, which while anticipated, still halted commerce, backed up ships and caused huge economic losses, as much as several billion dollars.

David Ortiz, an international transportation expert with the RAND Corporation here in Washington says, "Because the system is so tightly integrated, that if an attack were to occur or if there were a security situation such that a port needed to be closed, there are next to no provisions or plans in place to allow a quick re-routing of traffic throughout the system to other ports. Or if the system has to be shut down, there aren't procedures and guidelines for restarting that system."

The legislation that President Bush signed into law last month does require the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a plan in the event of an attack on American ports or waterways. David Ortiz notes that a terrorist attack may not cause significant physical damage at a port. But without a contingency plan, he says the overall economic effect could be much worse than what was seen during the port shutdown in 2002.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.