Maritime Transportation and Port Security

April 11, 2002

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

Statement of

Stephen E. Flynn, Ph.D.

More on:

United States

Defense and Security

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Council on Foreign Relations


“Maritime Transportation and Port Security”

presented before the

More on:

United States

Defense and Security

United States Senate

Committee on Appropriations

Room 216, Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, D.C.

Hearing on

“Homeland Security: Infrastructure Security—Port Security”

Thursday, April 11, 2002

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman.

My name is Stephen Flynn. I am the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations where I am directing a multi-year project on “Safeguarding the Homeland: Rethinking the Role of Border Controls.” I have also just recently retired as a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years of active duty service.

Since 1999, the aim of my research has been to both highlight and help avert an oncoming policy train wreck taking place at our nation’s borders; that is, the clash between policies that promote facilitation of trade and travel to support greater levels of global economic integration on the one hand, and stepped-up efforts to protect Americans from a growing array of transnational threats, including terrorism, on the other. Based on a number of field visits to our major seaports, my judgment prior to September 11 was that the facilitation imperative was completely overwhelming traditional border control measures. This despite the fact that a wide range of compelling public interests were under assault in seaports throughout the decade of the 1990s. These included threats to our ecosystem arising from invasive species found within ships’ ballast water; the mounting costs to U.S. consumers associated with billions of dollars in cargo theft; heroin and cocaine smuggled among the millions of tons of goods washing across America’s shores each day; and the trafficking in human beings in maritime containers, some of whom did not survive to relay the horrors of their passage.

The mounting evidence that America’s seaports increasingly have become conduits for globalization’s dark side received the sporadic attention of the mass media and the more-focused attention of the recent Interagency Commission on Crime and Security in U.S. Ports. Still, to a large extent port authorities and elected officials saw these challenges in much the same way that most retailers view shoplifting—as a cost of doing business. But, while major retailers often invest in store detectives, cameras, and other devises to at least deter amateur thieves, U.S. seaports have barely been going through the security motions. A graphic illustration of this fact is the case of Los Angeles and Long Beach where 44 percent of all the over 6 million containers entered the United States last year. The city of Long Beach provides no sworn police force to patrol the waters or the terminals within what is arguably the nation’s most vital seaport—a situation that has not changed in the 7 months since September 11. And if the U.S. Customs service wants to examine a suspicious container arriving at that busy port, they have to move it 15 miles inland through congested neighborhoods of Los Angeles county. This is because there is no inspection facility in the port—the real estate has been viewed as too precious to justify that kind of a public investment.

The abysmal state of seaport security was not just a result of local neglect. Washington has been complicit as well. Cash-strapped agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard had been downsized to pre-1964 manning levels during the decade of the 1990s. One consequence of this was that it was dedicating less than 2 percent of its operating budget to the port security mission on September 10th. Faced with a rising workload at the land border crossing with Mexico and our increasingly busy international airports, the U.S. Customs Service and INS “robbed Peter to pay Paul” and left the seaport with fewer inspectors than they had in the 1980s, even though the volume of trade passing through those ports had quadrupled over that time period. In addition the tools and protocols for conducting inspections, collecting and mining data, and sharing information among the border enforcement agencies simply had not kept pace with the size, speed, and complexity of the international networks that transport people and goods. This wasn’t for a want of asking. Repeated agency requests for new inspection technologies and information age tools to support the work of increasingly overwhelmed front-line agents fell on the deaf-ears of government appropriators.

Like Rip van Winkle, the nation is waking from a decades-long slumber and discovering a transformed port security landscape. While we have been asleep, the United States has become increasingly dependent on access to the seas for our national prosperity. Ocean shipping lines are the conveyor belts for goods that account for 25 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The ports are the on-ramps and off-ramps to those conveyor belts. In order to support the growing volume of trade, particularly against the backdrop of parsimonious state and federal budgets for seaport infrastrcuture, port authorities have had to work hard to eliminate any source of friction that might slow throughput. Security was one of the casualties of stepped-up efforts to improve port efficiency.

Let me be clear about this. We are starting virtually from scratch in developing a secure maritime transportation system to underpin America’s ability to trade with the world. For instance, U.S. Customs inspectors rely on targeting systems to help identify the 1-2 percent of the maritime containers they are able to physically examine. Unfortunately, when trying to identify the high risk as opposed to the low risk, customs analysts are currently poorly positioned to ascertain three things: First, was the container loaded at a secure loading dock that presents little opportunity for the shipment to be compromised by a criminal or terrorist? Second, can the movement and condition of the container from the point of origin to its arriving destination be accounted for with sufficient detail so as to support a conclusion that it is unlikely the box was intercepted and tampered enroute? Third, was there sufficient timely and detailed information about inbound containerized shipments to allow authorities to conduct a “virtual inspection” in advance of arrival, using existing databases? Right now, the answer to each of these three questions is, at best, “maybe.” “Maybe” is clearly unacceptable when the lives of thousands of Americans are potentially threatened by a container that has been transformed into a poor man’s missile.

Given the dependency of most U.S. manufactures on global supply chains, the ability of our ports to stay open for business is central not just for our continued economic prosperity, but for our national economic survival. The absence of a robust capacity to filter the illicit from the licit in the face of: (a) a heightened terrorist threat environment, and (b) the growing volume of people and goods moving through international trade corridors, places U.S. and global commerce at frequent risk of disruption. Absent alternatives, when confronted with credible intelligence of a terrorist attack or an attack itself, authorities will find themselves compelled to order a shut down of our transportation systems as one of their first preventative or responsive measures. Executing this order will have the net effect of creating a self-imposed blockade on the U.S. economy. The ripple effect throughout the international trade corridors will be immediate and painful because there is no alternative to a container for moving over 90 percent of general cargo between North America and Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. Working towards building a secure maritime transportation system is intended to provide a counter-terrorism alternative to such a draconian and disruptive response.

In short, the stakes associated with trade and seaport security are enormous. But the state of investment in public resources to address the longstanding vulnerabilities on the waterfront and within the maritime transportation system by no means reflects that fact. At a minimum, we should be seriously contemplating doubling the budgets of the Coast Guard and Customs Service. We also should be raising the ceiling on the port security grant program to fund the $2.2 billion dollars the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) estimates U.S. ports need to meet the terrorism and crime measures the Interagency Seaport Security Commission has called for. I recognize that these are sizable demands on the existing budget resources. But, when this investment is contrasted with the resources we are now investing to improve airport security and to combat terrorism overseas, these outlays appear quite modest by comparison.

While providing sufficient resources for front-line agencies to do their jobs and for port authorities to attend to their most pressing security needs is essential, it will not be sufficient. The port security agenda must be pursued with the following three points in mind:

(1) Seaports cannot be separated from the international transport system to which they belong. Ports are in essence nodes in a network where cargo is loaded on or unloaded from one mode—a ship—to or from other modes—trucks, trains, and, on occasion, planes. Therefore, seaport security must always be pursued against the context of transportation security. In other words, efforts to improve security within the port requires that parallel security efforts be undertaken in the rest of the transportation and logistics network. If security improvements are limited to the ports, the result will be to generate the “balloon effect”; i.e., pushing illicit activities horizontally or vertically into the transportation and logistics systems where there is a reduced chance of detection or interdiction.

(2) Port security initiatives must be harmonized within a regional and international context. Unilateral efforts to tighten security within U.S. ports without commensurate efforts to improve security in the ports of our neighbors will lead shipping companies and importers to “port-shop”; i.e., to move their business to other market-entry points where their goods are cleared more quickly. Thus the result of unilateral, stepped-up security within U.S. ports could well be to erode the competitive position of important America ports while the locus of the security risk simply shifts outside of our reach to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean to ports such as Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver, and Freeport.

(3) Since U.S. ports are among America’s most critical infrastructure, they should not be viewed as a primary line of defense in an effort to protect the U.S. homeland. The last place we should be looking to intercept a ship or container that has been co-opted by terrorists is in a busy, congested, and commercially vital seaport.

Since, seaports are the main arteries that feed global markets by moving commodities, cargo, business travelers, and tourists, protecting that circulatory system from being compromised by terrorists is an important imperative unto itself. Enhancing transport security, therefore, is one part, about preventing terrorists from exploiting the networks to cause catastrophic harm, and the other part about sustaining the continued viability of international commerce. This task can only be accomplished by moving away from ad hoc controls at the seaports that lie within U.S. jurisdiction, and toward point of origin controls, supported by a concentric series of checks built into the system at points of transshipment (transfer of cargo from one conveyance to another) and at points of arrival.

Effective maritime transportation system security must rest on a foundation of credible risk management; i.e.; a regime that can reliably identify the people, goods, and conveyances that are legitimate, so their movements can be facilitated. Then regulators and inspectors could focus on the smaller number of participants about which they know little or for which they have specific concerns. This requires a layered public/private approach. One such approach would be to ensure full funding for the “Operation Safe Commerce” initiatives which the Governor Jeane Shaheen of New Hampshire has championed in northern New England, that my colleague Rick Larrabee is actively advancing in the Port of New York and New Jersey, and for which there is equal enthusiasm among public and private maritime leaders in southern California.

The objective of Operation Safe Commerce is to identify appropriate security practices to govern the loading and movement of cargo throughout an international supply chain so as to support the development of the following:

  • Identifying secure packing requirements for loading intermodal containers along the lines of ISO9000, Quality Assurance rules.

  • Developing security standards for maintaining secure loading docks at manufacturing plants or shipping facilities that can be audited by public officials or accredited private firms.

  • Outfitting containers with theft-resistant mechanical and electronic seals.

  • Installing a pressure, light, temperature, or other sensors in the interior of the container, which would be programmed to set off an alarm if the container was opened illegally at some point of transit

  • Conducting background checks for operators that transport goods along the intermodal transport chain and outfitting them with biometrically-based identity cards.

  • Attaching an electronic transponder (such as those used for the “E-Z-pass” toll payment system in the northeastern United States) or other tracking technologies to the truck cab, chassis, railcar, and containers and use intelligence transportation system (ITS) technologies to monitor in-transit movements to and within the port terminal.

  • Maintaining the means to communicate with operators from their pick-up to offload destinations.

  • Providing tracking information to the appropriate regulatory or enforcement authorities within the jurisdictions through which it would be destined.

  • Requiring all participants in the supply chain cycle to provide advance notice of the details about their shipments, operators, and conveyances in accordance with agreed upon protocols. This early notice would give inspectors the time to assess the validity of the data, to check it against any watch lists they may be maintaining, and provide timely support to a field inspector deciding what should be targeted for examination.

This system which advances near-real time transparency of trade and travel flows would serve two purposes. First, to reduce the risk of shipments being compromised in transit. Second, to enhance the ability for enforcement officials to quickly act on intelligence of a compromise when they receive it by allowing them to pinpoint the suspected freight. The importance of achieving this second objective cannot be overstated. The sheer number of travelers and volume of trade along with the possibility of internal conspiracy even among companies and transporters who are deemed low-risk makes critical the ongoing collection of good intelligence about potential breeches in security. But, that intelligence is practically useless if it helps only to perform a post-attack autopsy. Mandating “in-transit accountability and visibility” would provide authorities with the means to detect, track, and intercept threats once they receive an intelligence alert.

Mandating that data be provided is one thing; effectively managing and mining it so as to make a credible determination of risk is another. The tools are at hand, though the resources to purchase them in a timely fashion appear to be in short supply. Worthy investments include building the “Maritime Domain Awareness” system being advanced by Coast Guard Commandant, ADM James Loy. Too often front line agencies are operating with only a narrow and outdated slice of the information available to assess threats. They must have the means to support the timely reporting, fusion, analysis and dissemination of both raw intelligence and polished analytical products. Other acquisitions that deserve stepped up funding are the International Trade Data System (ITDS) and Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) to replace the frail and obsolete Automated Manifest System (AMS). Agencies also should be encouraged to explore the benefits to be accrued by investing in “off-the-shelf” software products designed to support web-based logistics and financial transactions.

Finally, resources should be made available to support the manning needs associated with Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner’s call for “pushing borders out.” By moving Customs, INS, and Coast Guard inspectors overseas, the United States would be able to intercept high-risk cargo at the point of departure before they could threaten the American public, get transport-related intelligence into the security system sooner, and promote closer multilateral enforcement cooperation among our trade partners. Of course, such an approach would require reciprocity. Accordingly, we should be prepared to adapt our inspection facilities to accommodate the presence of foreign inspectors within our seaports as well. A very tangible step in this direction would be to immediately fund a new proposal prepared by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to convert an abandoned U.S. Naval Reserve facility on Terminal Island into a prototype interagency/multinational maritime inspection facility. In addition to housing state-of-the-art scanning technologies, the facility should play host to representatives from all the federal, state, and local agencies who have an inspection mandate. It should also play host to Customs authorities from our major Asian trading partners such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong.


Building a credible system for detecting and intercepting terrorists who seek to exploit or target international transport networks would go a long way towards containing the disruption potential of a catastrophic terrorist act. A credible system would not necessarily have to be perfect, but it would need to be good enough so that when an attack does occur, the public deems it to be as a result of a correctible fault in security rather than an absence of security.

Ultimately getting seaport security right must not be about fortifying our nation at the water’s edge to fend off terrorists. Instead, its aim must be to identify and take the necessary steps to preserve the flow of trade and travel that allows the United States to remain the open, prosperous, free, and globally-engaged societies that rightly inspires so many in this shrinking and dangerous world.

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