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At nation's ports, cargo backlog raises question of security

(The following article by John M. Broder was posted on the New York Times website on July 26.)

LOS ANGELES -- Severe cargo congestion and labor shortages at American seaports are creating long delays in delivering goods and potential threats to national security, dockworkers and security experts say.

The problems are particularly acute at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's busiest, handling roughly a third of the nine million cargo containers that arrive in the United States each year.

David Arian, president of Local 13 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which works the Los Angeles waterfront, said the facilities and work crews here could not keep up with the volume of incoming freight. Mr. Arian said that as a result some new port regulations from the Department of Homeland Security were not being followed.

"The specific regulations for checking seals to ensure integrity of containers and cargo in them are presently not being enforced," Mr. Arian said in a telephone conference call on Thursday. "In terms of checking people coming into the terminals, the only people they're checking are longshoremen. We've been down there 70 years, and we're the most secure part of the work force. The truckers they don't check at all."

He said that terminal operators had begun to hire small numbers of additional workers to handle the freight backlog but that as many as 13,000 extra full- and part-time waterfront workers were needed in the Los Angeles ports alone.

Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, operator of the major West Coast seaports, sharply disputed Mr. Arian's contentions about enforcement.

"I can tell you unequivocally that all P.M.A. members are in compliance with all the federal regulations," Mr. McKenna said. He said that containers were sealed before they were loaded on ships bound for the United States and that there was no opportunity for tampering with them before they arrived here. He also said that everyone entering a secure marine terminal must present identification or paperwork granting access.

"We are responsible for the ports," he said. "It's our cargoes, our customers, our workers. The flow of cargo would be disrupted beyond repair for us not to comply with security regulations."

Security and intelligence experts have identified the nation's 361 seaports and the 60,000 mostly foreign-flagged ships that sail in and out of them each year as prime targets for a potential terrorist attack. But ships and seaports have received only a small fraction of the attention given the aviation system since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they said.

Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and a maritime security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, contends that cargo containers will one day be used as "the poor man's missile" to deliver devastating weapons to American shores.

"The question is when, not if," said Mr. Flynn, author of "America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism," published this month by HarperCollins.

He said American ports were ill equipped to handle the volume of freight passing through them daily, particularly compared with the sophisticated marine terminals in Singapore, Hong Kong and Rotterdam. He said overcrowding and outmoded transportation and cargo-handling systems made the American ports an easy target for theft and terrorism. "Inefficiency leads to insecurity," he said in a telephone interview.

Bush administration officials said port security was a high priority and described what they called a multilayered system intended to prevent a seaborne attack by cargo ship.

In an appearance at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last month, Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, said port security began even before ships bound for the United States were loaded at foreign ports. He said that intelligence agencies tracked shipments and that federal law required every ship sailing for American shores to file a manifest of all cargo.

"We will now be better able to harden physical infrastructure, verify the security of individual vessels before they approach a U.S. port, and better restrict access to our port areas," Mr. Ridge said.

James F. Michie, a spokesman for the United States Customs and Border Protection, which polices land crossings and ports, said it was impossible to inspect every container entering the country. But he said American ports were moving and screening containers at a rate consistent with the current threat alert level of yellow, for elevated.

Mr. Michie said that some containers were physically inspected and that others were scanned by radiation-detection devices and other high-technology tools.

"It is a system that is under development; we think it's the best we've got now, but it's going to get better," he said. "We think we're on the right track."

The problems are worsened by the surge in traffic in containerized freight. Ever larger ships - some with more than 7,000 cargo containers each - are docking at American ports, which are poorly equipped to move the freight. The average container now sits on the dock for seven or eight days before being loaded onto a rail car or a truck chassis for transport to the interior of the country, said Blair R. Garcia, a strategic planner at the TranSystems Corporation, which analyzes and designs transportation facilities nationwide.

Mr. Garcia said port congestion and freight backlogs had national security considerations beyond the possibility of terrorists' using ships or cargo containers as weapons delivery systems.

He said the Pentagon had a new requirement that commercial shippers and ports be able to load and move the equipment for five Army divisions in 75 days, with a goal of reducing that to 30 days. By contrast, in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the military moved six divisions in 180 days.

"You can imagine what kind of stress that puts on our commercial assets and infrastructure as we're also trying to move commercial goods," Mr. Garcia said.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

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