Balancing Security and Commerce at L.A. Port

An international container is loaded at the Port of Los Angeles. i i

An international container is loaded at the Port of Los Angeles. Bilal Qureshi, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bilal Qureshi, NPR
An international container is loaded at the Port of Los Angeles.

An international container is loaded at the Port of Los Angeles.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR

The port complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach is the largest importation point for goods coming into the United States from overseas. It's also an inviting terrorist target. NPR's Scott Simon investigates just how well the port is equipped for thwarting a terror assault and what might be the economic implications if something were to happen there.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

More than 40 percent of the containers that enter the United States come through here - the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach - about 12,000 containers a day in Los Angeles alone, filled with food, goods, cars, steel and grain from all over the world.

Behind us, giant cranes are picking up and putting down containers the size of railroad cars off the ship, Merce Karachi(ph), out of London. Now, this combination of a great, urban area and a powerful economic engine has made many security experts see the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach as a potential target for terrorists - second only to Lower Manhattan.

PAUL E: Complacency is one of my biggest concerns.

SIMON: Captain Paul Wiedenhoeft is commander of the Coast Guard station nearest the ports.

WIEDENHOEFT: If you're not listening to those containers smacking around every day or hearing the ships' whistles when they're operating in the fog or out here, the further you get away from 9/11, the less of a concern it seems to be to a lot of the people.

SIMON: The ports may lack the symbolism of trademark towers against a signature skyline, but if the goal of an attack is to cripple the American economy, as well as to kill people, the ports may be almost irresistible. Look at your shoes, a car and the fuel you put in it, a cell phone, even the fruit on your breakfast cereal - it's hard to find any item of everyday life that doesn't contain something that pass through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

John Holmes is director of operations at the port.

JOHN HOLMES: We are a huge piece of critical infrastructure for the United States. We handle about 40.6 percent of all the containers coming into the United States - we are a large cruise port - a significant amount of the automobiles that come into Southern California, and also we handle a great deal of the oil that comes into Southern California.

SIMON: But each security measure, whether it's a new employee identification system that calls for swiping a card through a machine or inspecting more than the small fraction of cargo containers that are examined now, comes with a cost of time that could slow the movement of goods through the port and snarl the U.S. economy even before a terrorist attack occurs, or if it never does, which makes Captain Paul Wiedenhoeft ask...

WIEDENHOEFT: What level of security does the U.S. public want versus facilitating the commerce? And those are the two things I need to balance in my job every day.

SIMON: What are some of the things that you, personally, are concerned about could get into the United States through the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach?

WIEDENHOEFT: The USS Cole-style incident, where a small boat loaded with, you know, an improvised explosive device coming alongside a large vessel.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm going to have the captain come up on Channel 16.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).

SIMON: I just...

SIMON: Two port police boats usually patrol the 16-square miles of the port at any given time.

Unidentified Man #2: Copy.

SIMON: The neighborhood is crowded and eclectic; the seascape could be confusing. Los Angeles isn't just a working port for huge container or crew ships, fishing trollers, cabin cruisers, even house boats bobble in the harbor.

JANE HARMAN: Well, I know the port is a hundred years old and we're having a birthday party, but I do have port nightmares.

SIMON: Representative Jane Harman's 36th District borders the Port of Los Angeles. She's on the committee on Homeland Security and co-wrote the SAFE Port Act, the bipartisan bill that's tightened port security most notably with the transportation worker identification card or TWIC program, which runs security checks in the 25,000 or so people who work the port every day.

But some port workers unions at first opposed the program. Hauling freight is hard and heavy work; many of the people who do it may have criminal backgrounds. Representative Harman says they aren't worried about old drug convictions, immigration or alimony claims.

HARMAN: I mean, what we want to know is, is this person a terrorist? Is this person intending to conduct some kind of terror operation at the port?

SIMON: The chance that a nuclear device would slip through has probably been the most widely publicized threat. No more than 5 percent of the containers unloaded at the ports are inspected. And although all containers are driven through radiation detection devices, Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow on National Security at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the security net clearly has huge holes.

STEPHEN FLYNN: The fact is we still see within the containers multi-ton shipments of illegal narcotics; every form of counterfeit goods. We see piracy; we see people being smuggled in containers still today, so the system is, by no means, secure.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIATION MONITORS)

SIMON: Those radiation monitors are famously indiscriminate. Their alarms at the port go off about 500 times a day, set off by bunches of bananas, kitchen countertops and even the gullets of truck drivers who had medical radiation treatments.

Steven Flynn points out that enriched uranium actually has a very low level of radioactivity; it can be concealed by a layer of lead.

FLYNN: Radiation portals are certainly helpful up to a point, but we still yet have got to the point where we need to be able to prevent these things from getting into the system in the first place.

SIMON: The recent scandal over toxic toys coming in from China may be a reminder, too, that the danger may be less in what might be smuggled in than in something that's already been packed thousand of miles away in Singapore or Hong Kong.

Steven Flynn believes that the U.S. government has to encourage foreign governments to step up examinations at ports where containers are packed to protect their stake in the American market.

FLYNN: We can't be here at the final line, which is what our ports really are, almost like the goal line trying to stop the terrorists. What we really need to do is get out into that system more broadly and find ways where we get people to manage this.

SIMON: Many who worry about the security of the ports told us that trying to devise ways to foil an attack is only part of the challenge. The larger part may be to find ways to keep the ports open and functioning after an attack, so that containers and their cargo don't sit on ships and rot, choking what might be the most important pipeline of the U.S. economy.

We asked Representative Jane Harman.

Do you have any concern that the worries will become so great, the port will suffer economically?

HARMAN: It's a problem; a think this terror threat will be with us for a long time. It's a new, maybe generational challenge, and we have to learn to manage it as we devise better strategies to find out who's trying to attack us and prevent them from doing it.

SIMON: John Holmes was director of port security on September 11th, 2001. Now, as director of operations, he says he understands that if the port were to be closed by a terrorist attack or even foul weather, the effects would be felt directly and for months to come at auto plants in Kentucky, steel mills in Chicago, and at fuel pumps in Ohio.

HOLMES: Our focus, in a word, is resiliency because whether it's an event caused by somebody or an event caused by nature, there's going to be an event that's going to affect this port. So we have to focus on the idea of resiliency, which is doing the things we need to do to get things up and running again when something happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

SIMON: There was a celebration last weekend with the port's 100th anniversary. The city of San Pedro lies just outside the ports; many residents work there and are proud of their role in keeping the ports going.

Marcus Torres(ph) helped organize the celebration with his church group.

MARCUS TORRES: When 9/11 happened, of course, we really was scared of what can happen here in the heart of the harbor. But I believe that we are aware that we are in a very dangerous place, but we get used to it.

SIMON: People in Southern California could get used to a lot that the rest of the country finds remarkable: chance of earthquakes, the seasonal risks of Santa Ana winds that whip up fires, and now, perhaps the certainty that terrorists are eyeing the vast open ports that nourish this city and the country.

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