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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Port Security: Ignorance is not bliss

Worth reproducing almost in its entirety, this article from the Providence Journal's Timothy C. Barmann:
To understand the threat posed by a terrorist attack on a major American port, Stephen E. Flynn suggested we consider our response to the recent "spinach problem."
Even though the source of E. coli-contaminated spinach has been traced to a three-county area in California, Americans have virtually eliminated the leafy vegetable from their dinner tables. Regardless of where it was grown, people stopped buying spinach, leaving spinach growers elsewhere "in a world of hurt."
That tendency to overreact, and the chain of events that follows that reaction, is what creates the real crisis, rather than the incident itself, he said.
Flynn is a former commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a widely cited expert on maritime and port security issues. He spoke at the University of Rhode Island yesterday as part of an international conference on port security, natural disasters and marine transportation issues. The conference continues today.
Americans, and especially their elected representatives, are "overwhelmingly ignorant" of how the global transportation system works, he said.
"They have a woeful under-appreciation of its value, of the critical role it plays in our prosperity. And as a consequence of that, they are prone to do silly things."
He described such a scenario. Suppose a cargo container carrying a "dirty bomb" -- an explosive device carrying highly dispersible radioactive material -- exploded at a major marine terminal, and officials couldn't identify the source.
"The response, I can predict with 100-percent certainty, is that our government will behave irrationally from a standpoint of risk," he said.
"We will close all our ports down and we will basically try to inspect our way to a sense of security."
The ripple effect of that will be that the global trade system will be brought to its knees within two weeks, he said.
"The threat here was not the act of terror itself. The threat here is . . . how the American policy will respond to a perceived breech of security that threatens this community.
"If we don't get it right soon, not only will the United States suffer, but the international community will suffer as well."
Salerno described the system in which the Coast Guard determines where to place its resources to address potential security threats.
He said the agency uses the Maritime Security Risk Assessment Model, in which potential targets, such as liquefied natural gas facilities or bridges, are assigned a number that takes into account the threat, vulnerability and consequences.
That model allows the Coast Guard to make comparisons regionally and nationally, so it can better deploy its resources, he said.
Barani, of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, described some of the security improvements that were made since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The authority has installed an intruder-detection system that monitors 45 miles of airport perimeters and it has hardened all the support structures that hold up the George Washington Bridge "so it will not go down," he said.
And the Department of Homeland Security has established a "countermeasure testbed" with the port authority to test new technologies that detect threats to railways and monitor aviation facilities, roadways and seaports.
Norwitz, of the U.S. Naval War College, proffered that the current war on terrorism could be viewed as being World War III.
Like the first two world wars, Norwitz said, the current war is against an ideology -- Islamic extremism.
"If the world is in fact at war, then certainly the world's oceans will become part of that battle space," Norwitz said.
"Pirates, as mercenary armed groups or surrogates acting on behalf of terror organizations, will play a unique role in frustrating marine commerce as part of a global war strategy."
Of course, should there be any success in pentrating the defenses, then all the logic of risk modeling will be forgotten in the stampede to irrational solutions.

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