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Securing Our Transportation System

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
October 3, 2001
The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Add a week, at least, of American commerce to the list of casualties from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. In the hours following the collapse of the twin towers, the United States applied a tourniquet to the transportation arteries that feed our national economy. The first campaign in the war to protect the American homeland was to impose an embargo -- on our own economy.

Freezing our transport networks first and asking questions later was clearly appropriate. But now comes the hard part. While domestic policing must continue to be emphasized, a considerable threat exists in cross-border traffic as well. Chemical and biological weapons can be more easily loaded in a truck than on a missile. Front-line agencies like the Customs Service are being called upon to do something for which they have neither the staff nor the training. Last year, by air, land and sea, 489 million people, 127 million cars and 211,000 boats passed through our border inspection systems. These agencies, as presently financed and administered, cannot possibly eliminate every threat when faced with such numbers.

Airports and airplanes are like Fort Knox compared with other forms of transport. As cross-border trade has grown, security and those responsible for providing it have been shoved aside. Despite trade more than tripling between the United States and Canada, for example, the numbers of customs and immigration inspectors along the border remain at pre-NAFTA levels. The Coast Guard, which is essential to port security, is at its lowest personnel level since 1964.

We are now experiencing the dark side of a transport system in which efficiency has trumped public security. As America mobilizes for a long struggle, we must acknowledge some basic realities. There will continue to be anti-American terrorists with global reach. These terrorists will have access to the means to carry out catastrophic attacks. And future terrorists will draw inspiration from this black Tuesday.

We must find a way to reduce the potential of our global transport lifelines to be conduits for terrorism. There needs to be far greater international cooperation in policing transnational flows of people and goods.

One idea might be to place some of our immigration and customs officials with their counterparts overseas, allowing them to inspect and clear travelers and goods destined for the United States. Such an approach would take better advantage of law-enforcement information at the point of departure, get transport-related intelligence into the security system sooner and reduce the congestion caused by inspections at our borders.

The private sector and traveling public also have roles to play. The overwhelming majority of international carriers, cargo shippers and travelers are legitimate, and they must be willing, for their safety, to embrace tightened security measures and provide proof of their identities and purposes as early as possible. This would allow border agencies to determine with more confidence what risks travelers, carriers and cargo might pose.

Verifying the identity and purpose of users or operators at the point of origin could be accomplished through electronic fingerprint technology and cargo and vehicle scanning equipment.

Tracking devices -- electronic tagging, universal bar codes -- could be adopted to ensure tighter control over commerce. This in-transit accountability would allow authorities to act on intelligence of a potential breach in security prior to arrival at our borders, as well as afterward. Their work must be effectively coordinated and supported by analysts and data management systems that would enable more effective targeting.

The vibrancy of our globalized economy depends on the free movement of people, goods and ideas. As Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge steps into his new role as head of the Office of Homeland Security, he should keep in mind that quarantining our transportation system in the face of terrorism cannot be the right cure for this disease.

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