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Officials Beef Up Port of Houston Security

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, officials all across the United States began looking at every possible vulnerability and developing plans to protect vital infrastructure and assets. One of the most important potential economic targets would be the energy industry, which is centered in and around Houston, Texas and its port.

Port of Houston police are on constant patrol along the wharves and warehouses that line the ship channel. This is the busiest port in the United States in terms of maritime tonnage. The port generates nearly $11 billion a year in revenue and employs, directly and indirectly, 287,000 people in Houston and elsewhere in the state of Texas.

But what could make this an attractive target for terrorists is the oil and gas industry that uses the port for transportation, and which maintains several refineries and storage facilities right along the ship channel.

A High-Impact Target

James Edmonds, chairman of the Port of Houston Authority Commission, says any disruption here would have an immediate impact on the nation as a whole.

"Forty-nine percent of the refined products produced in this country come from Houston ship channel industries and so you can imagine the economic chaos that would occur if you were to shut off the waterway and not be able to get the crude in or blow up one of the major refineries and incapacitate it for months on end. That would be economically catastrophic," says Edmonds.

Since the terrorist attacks five years ago the federal government has stepped up security requirements at ports and Edmonds says the Port of Houston has met every mandate. But security can be expensive. At a meeting on July 24, commissioners raised port fees to help pay for the additional costs for providing security.

Edmonds says the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the agencies under the Department of Homeland Security work closely with port officials to prevent any illegal activity that could threaten the port or its operations.

"Let's say a ship is coming from the Middle East someplace. Seventy-two hours before the ship reaches port, it is required to radio in its cargo manifest and its crew rosters and the FBI and Coast Guard check that. Once the ship is at dock, let's say it is a container ship, Customs would have four portable gamma ray machines. The container would be lifted off the ship on a chassis and it would be run through the gamma ray machine to see if there is anything unusual in there," says Edmonds.

An al-Qaida Trail

A terrorist threat to Houston is also a major concern for Fred Burton, a former terrorism expert with the Department of State who now works as an analyst for Strategic Forecasting, a risk-assessment firm based in the Texas state capital of Austin.

He says his years of studying al-Qaida and its leader, Osama Bin Laden, give him reason to worry about an attack on Houston and its vital oil and gas industry.

"Bin Laden's goal is the economic devastation of America, and so if you can hit targets that from an economic perspective bring our country down or make it so miserable, that type of venue such as Houston would be a prime target," says Burton.

Burton says there is also evidence that al-Qaida and other terrorists have been in Houston and that it is reasonable to think they might still have people living in the city, perhaps looking for an opportunity to act. He says FBI investigations after the first attack on New York's World Trade Center in 1993 led to Houston.

"Several of the suspects actually lived and safe-havened in Houston and until this day we do not know where. You also have a location that has a very large Muslim population and, for whatever reason, al-Qaida is comfortable with that," says Burton.

Terrorism and Media

The terrorism expert says all it would take to cripple the U.S. energy industry is one terrorist pilot flying a fully fueled plane out of a Houston airport and crashing it into a refinery or storage facility along the waterway.

"If you knew exactly what to hit, you could cause the kind of attack and explosion that would resonate to the Arabian peninsula. We all like to think that this is our world and we are just living in it, but al-Qaida could not care less what you and I think. Al-Qaida's audience is on the Arabian peninsula and in Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in Iraq and in Pakistan. So what they would want to do, in a post-9-11 world, would be carry out an attack that every news media, from VOA to all the major networks would be broadcasting that, 24 by seven, all around the world," says Burton.

Back at the Port of Houston, James Edmonds acknowledges that there is no such thing as 100 percent certainty on security, but he says he believes everything that can be done is being done to protect the port and the oil and gas industry resources around it.

"We continue to look for more things to do, more ways to make sure that our facilities are more secure. We look at all the new technologies and we make sure we have that technology in place for our properties, our facilities, so we are doing all we can do," says Edmonds.

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