A thin plastic security strip is sometimes all that protects a ship against the introduction of illicit materials.
Every day, 1,500 containers arrive at the port of Oakland, California, ready to be moved swiftly onto the rails and highways that will take their contents into the heartland of america. While they are being unloaded, a terrorist in a rowboat can paddle in uncontested, set off a bomb and rock the heart of the harbor with an explosion. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs officials, who have to verify the contents of those 19-ton packages of goods, in the end have to trust that the captains of arriving ships are telling the simple truth about whats on board.
Ray Boyle still admires the rugged beauty of the Port of Oakland. The harbor is filled every day with all manner of sleek vessels—from 10-foot kayaks, to 30-foot sloops, to oceangoing cargo ships that stretch almost 1,000 feet from stem to stern.
The wake from the giant ships laps lazily against the docks, where 200-foot-high cranes perch like giant heron ready to pick containers off their massive decks. Near the foot of the lifts, the Northern California sun glints off a small fleet of diesel-powered 18-wheel trucks, waiting to receive their loads.
Oakland is a productive port. Its mission is to move commercial freight "quickly, at the best possible cost, to generate the best profit," as Boyle, the ports general manager of maritime operations, puts it. Last year, it handled more than 1.7 million cargo containers, trailing only the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Calif., and New York-New Jersey.
But security has never been part of its mission—or that of any port. The idea of slowing down cargo to check it for destructive contents, Boyle says, "is alien to a certain extent."
That has left the nations system of seaports "very vulnerable," according to Rear Admiral Larry Hereth, the Coast Guards director of port security. Much like airports were before Sept. 11, 2001.
No longer does Boyle—a 30-year veteran of the Port of Oakland—regard a kayak as simply a recreational craft. He wonders whether suicide bombers might be rowing underneath the docks. He thinks about Al Qaeda operatives being smuggled aboard one of those giant cargo vessels. If thats not enough to turn his gray head of hair white, he contemplates the possibility that weapons of mass destruction could be hidden in one of the approximately 1,500 containers that get trucked out of the port each day.
This kind of exposure at seaports puts a foundation of the U.S. economy at risk.
Ninety-five percent of the $827 billion of trade done with countries outside of North America comes in by ship. That is 7.6% of the $10.4 trillion of goods and services consumed annually in the United States. In addition, the $104 billion worth of oil imported annually to power factories, retail stores, schools and vehicles of all sizes and shapes comes in by ship.
If something was to happen to Boyles port, it would affect ports across the country. In the event of an attack, the federal government likely would order all the nations 360 harbors shut down. The ripple effects of such a move were seen last fall, when a 10-day strike by dockworkers at Oakland and 28 other West Coast ports cost U.S. businesses $2 billion a day in lost sales, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.