Oaklands Blind Faith

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2003-09-09 Print this article Print

Port managers are working feverishly to prevent a dockside doomsday. For his part, Boyle is assessing port vulnerabilities and tightening up perimeter defenses with motion-detector equipped fences and surveillance cameras. Hes also looking at gate-control mechanisms that ultimately could include everything from smart cards to biometrics.

But Oakland needs to do a lot more—and Boyle knows it. He doesnt have the funds to set up an emergency communications network that would connect the 11 container terminals in his harbor with the Oakland Police Department. Nor does he have the money for a vessel that would patrol Oaklands 19 miles of waterfront. Those projects could run into the millions of dollars. Boyle says, "We dont have that much money."

Oakland made what it says was a fair and accurate assessment of its needs and applied for more than $150 million in federal port security grants to pay for fences, barricades, surveillance cameras and many other projects. So far, the port has received just $6.4 million—$4.8 million in a first round of aid and $1.6 million in a second.

But securing the ports perimeters is only half of Boyles battle. The most worrisome threats wont be stopped at the ports gates nor its docks—if a container loaded with radioactive or biological weapons gets anywhere near the ports 35 container cranes, its probably too late for Boyle or anyone else in Oakland to do anything about it.

The ports only real defense against a weapon of mass destruction is to work with officials at the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard—the agencies most responsible for port security—to keep anything dangerous as far away from its anchorage as possible. That means knowing what ships are coming, whos on those ships, what those ships are carrying, and stopping them before they get close to the Golden Gate.

Take a look at how the Department of Homeland Security is combating cyber-terrorism.

Boyle and other port managers put their faith in Customs and Coast Guard to figure out whats in the 7.3 million inbound sea containers that 212,000 vessels bring into the nations ports each year.

But its blind faith.

A four-month Baseline investigation found flaws along the sea-based supply chain that include everything from data input to data collection to data analysis.


  • Unchecked manifests. Every commercial ship transport must submit a manifest that lists all the cargo its carrying—from sneakers to cars. This is the primary document the Custom service uses to determine which ships it should ask the Coast Guard to stop at sea and inspect and which containers it should inspect upon arrival in a U.S. port. But its a system built on trust, and shippers can put down just about anything they like on this key report.  


  • Fictional crew members. Lists of a ships crew are often faxed to the Coast Guard a few days before a cargo vessel enters an American port. But, as in the case of any office fax, the words on these sheets of paper are often illegible—which means the names cant be input into any name-checking system, such as an immigration database. Like the manifests, the captain of the ship can submit any names—including fictitious ones.  


  • One-eye blindness. U.S. Customs and the Coast Guard each collect and store information on cargo and ship activity. But the two agencies dont have systems in place to exchange data so that either can instantly paint a single, computerized picture of the ships, crews and cargo heading toward a port.  


  • No sure alerts. Even when federal agencies have accurate information on a vessel and quickly assess a threat, Customs and the Coast Guard have no fail-safe method to alert Boyle and other port managers that they may be in harms way.  

    Next page: Modernization efforts at U.S. agencies versus flaws in current systems.


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