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Securing Our Ports Remains a Work in Progress

Original Article

When Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert was a King County deputy, he faced some harrowing situations during stakeouts and while responding to domestic violence calls because he could not communicate with other police departments equipped with different radio sets. Now, as chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee, he sees the same lack of interoperability between communications systems, but on a far grander stage.

The federal government is involved in hundreds of emergency management, freight mobility, border and port security initiatives that require sophisticated technologies. Yet ensuring that the myriad systems can communicate with each other is the responsibility of a four-person office buried in the Department of Homeland Security called the Office of Interoperability.

Reichert wants to elevate this obscure office because he knows that working communications can save lives -— a terrible lesson learned on Sept. 11, 2001. Reichert will outline his proposals for improving interoperability June 1 during the Cascadia/Microsoft technology forum at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, will also present their ideas for improving homeland security.

The current lack of interoperability is just one symptom of a larger awkward relationship between government and business in the field of security. “Smart” technologies can help protect our country from terrorists, assign resources quickly in response to natural disasters, move freight faster through port gateways and ease traffic congestion. But the biggest obstacles to making our ports more secure are partisan sniping over federal budget priorities, a lack of integrated architecture for freight tracking and disagreement over the best method for inspecting containers.

For example, several programs have been created to improve cargo security since Sept. 11, 2001, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security’s office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The department’s current strategy is to inspect containers at their overseas ports of origin, before they are loaded onto freighters bound for the United States. These foreign port authorities cooperate in the Container Security Initiative, a voluntary program for expediting inspections.

The problem is, only a small fraction of the ports sending cargo to the United States are participating in this program, and U.S. Customs agents can only scan between 5 percent and 6 percent of containers bound for our ports to ensure that they are not carrying nuclear material. Without tamper-proof electronic seals, it is also difficult to ensure that a container does not have its cargo switched once the ship is on the high seas. U.S. Customs does not have enough agents to conduct compliance audits at home or abroad — much less to inspect every one of the 12 million containers that will enter U.S. ports this year.

In an effort to address these distressing facts, Congress is currently considering HR 4954, The Safe Port Act. In his April 4 testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security, World Shipping Council CEO Chris Koch advised increasing the amount of information companies must provide customs officials at least 24 hours before their cargo sails to the United States. Koch advocates electronic seals on each container that would hold secure encrypted data, including which company packed the container, the ports the ship docked at previously, and the shipper’s security and safety record. Koch also advised against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Markey’s proposal to mandate that every single container entering the United States be scanned. Koch believes that such measures, hastily implemented, would lead to terrible backlogs at ports and hurt international trade.

However, Stephen Flynn, an internationally known security expert, has a slightly different view. Flynn believes the current Homeland Security Department strategy of trying to isolate high-risk containers at ports of origin is fatally flawed, and he does not believe that customs officials and shippers can identify the most suspicious or important 5 percent of containers to scan.

Flynn points to a pilot program implemented by the Container Terminal Operators Association of Hong Kong, in which every container is scanned by gamma-ray machines, a radiation portal and optical-recognition cameras that record each container’s number. The cost of this system is estimated at $6.50 per container, and it has been implemented in one of the world’s busiest ports. Closer to home, Starbucks Corp. is developing an electronic-seal system that records when a container is opened using encrypted, tamper-resistant Bluetooth technology. This sophisticated system is said to cost between $10 and $15 per container.

The Puget Sound region is clearly poised to lead the nation in bringing government and the private sector together to solve this problem and ensure that free trade and security complement each other in this Pacific century. We have the technology. Now it is a question of making it work.

BRUCE AGNEW is director and CHARLES GANSKE is a writer for the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, a nonprofit public policy center based in Seattle.


Port security is one of the topics at Cascadia’s 2006 TransTech conference on May 31 and June 1. Click here for more information and to register online.

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 1993, Bruce Agnew has been leading the Northwest Cascadia initiative serving as director of the Cascadia Center in Seattle. The Center is a private, non-profit, public policy center engaged in regional and international transportation and technology. Bruce also co-chairs of the Transportation Group for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) – a public private partnership of ten Northwest states and Western Canadian provinces/territories. Since 2017, he has served as director of the ACES NW Network dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in transportation.