Lieberman: Port Vulnerability to Terrorist Attacks is “Terrifying”

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Thursday said the high vulnerability of the nation’s 400 shipping ports to terrorist attack was “literally terrifying” and called for systemic revisions in how ports are secured.

“U.S. ports are our nation’s key transportation link for global trade, and yet there are no federal standards for port security and no single federal agency overseeing the 11.6 million shipping containers, 11.5 million trucks, 2.2 million railcars, 211,000 vessels, and 489 million people that passed through U.S. border inspection systems last year,” Lieberman said. “The plain fact is that the movement of goods into the U.S. – five million tons per day – is now so efficient that port security has been sacrificed. It is simply impossible to physically inspect more than a small sample of containers as they arrive in the U.S. Less than one percent are actually examined.”

The vulnerability of ports, in turn, leads to potential danger along our highways, rails and waterways. Containers arriving from Europe, Asia or Canada are virtually always inspected only at their final destinations, rather than at the arrival port, meaning at any given time, authorities have virtually no idea about the contents of thousands of multi-ton containers traveling on trucks, trains or barges.

“The ease with which a terrorist might smuggle chemical, biological or, at some point, even nuclear weapons in a container, without detection, is, literally terrifying,” Lieberman said.

Federal agencies charged with safeguarding harbors are handicapped by a lack of resources and failure to coordinate and communicate with one another, the Chairman noted. In addition, significant concerns have been raised about federal agency cooperation with state and local governments, as well as their access to national security intelligence.

“Our ports don’t need a bail out. They just need a sensible strategy to keep them safe and sound economic hubs. We must establish a much higher level of safety than we have at present, without sacrificing the speed and efficiency with which we now move goods around the globe.”

Lieberman expressed interest in several proposals offered by hearing witnesses, including pushing back our borders to require inspections at ports of embarkation, rather than final destinations; using technologies such as electronic seals and alarms on containers, and x-rays and global positioning satellite systems to track goods throughout their shipping routes; and reorganizing the federal government to improve coordination and communication between agencies in charge of port security with the state, local and private sectors.

Witness F. Amanda DeBusk, a former member of the Commission on Crime and Security in U.S. Seaports, said at least15 federal agencies have jurisdiction at the nation’s seaports – the primary ones being the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service – in addition to scores of state and local agencies and private sector concerns. Coordinating these groups would be a “monumental undertaking,” she said.

Both she and witness Stephen Flynn, a national security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested a Department of National Homeland Security could help coordinate these agencies.

Lieberman has introduced legislation with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would combine the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol – as well as other agencies – in a Department of National Homeland Security.