Q&A: US Port Security Before and After 9/11

What did port security mean to the maritime industry before the September 11 attacks? Are enough measures in place today to keep U.S. ports safe? Listen as Peter Tirschwell, senior VP of strategy for UBM Global Trade, as well as a weekly columnist for The Journal of Commerce, discusses the topic of port security and the changes it has undergone over the last 10 years with JOC editor Dana L. Brundage.

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Q: Peter, there's been a lot of reflecting this past week among Americans after learning of the death of Osama bin Laden. I wanted to ask you about how the attacks of September 11 affected port security in this country. We've seen a lot of changes over the past 10 years and you’ve been writing about this industry for a long time. Can you give us a visual of what port security was like pre-attacks versus now?

Peter: Indeed bin Laden being killed has caused a lot of reflections about the last 10 years. Prior to "9/11", port security didn't really exist in the way it does today to the extent the way that the U.S. was interested in what was coming into the country. It was for customs duty purposes because we had to collect duties on imports. It was for trade enforcement as we were interested in counterfeit items coming in and other banned commodities, turtles from the south China Sea or whatever it was and narcotics. The most extensive, what you could call port security measures were really around things like narcotics and the customs service maintaining vigilance over items that shouldn't be brought into the country for various reasons.

But terrorism went from being hardly on the radar screen at all to being the number one priority of the government after "9/11." It changed overnight. It took many years to get the regime in place that we have today. But I think we've gone from a situation where the public, indeed the industry as well, knew fundamentally that the containers, for example, were a gaping hole in the nation's security. These things were coming in from all over the world. Who knows what was in them. In some cases the carriers didn't know, and in some cases today they still don't know, what's inside of the containers. There was very little intelligence around it. And in result there was an enormous amount of work to be done. Our country and our government and the importing community --everyone from importers to 3PLs to BCOs to ports themselves, truckers, railroads -- all in one way or another had to step up big time in order to adjust themselves to the world.

I think we can look back now nearly 10 years later and say that a great deal has been accomplished. I think one of the clearest pieces of evidence of that is that fact that early on in the years after September 11 it was a very convenient political opportunity for politicians to rail against the lack of port security. It was a way that Democrats could go after President Bush, which they did. It was a way for laws to be passed that were popular at home. It was something that politicians knew that people were really, really insecure about. Well in the last 10 years we have implemented C-TPAT, we've implemented the 24-hour rule, 10+2, significant port security measures, protecting ports themselves. We've implemented radiation screening. We've implemented extensive targeting of all containers. The sum total of that is that today you do not hear the same level of political noise around containers. There's a comfort level.

Now of course the flip side of that is that were there to be an attack on our country and containers were linked to it, the debate would begin anew. That's always a threat to the industry -- that you better be watchful because container security is the responsibility of not just the government but everyone in the industry. Everybody in the industry has got to remain vigilant because if we don't and something happens, the government is going to come down on the industry like a ton of brinks and damn the consequences.

Q: Hindsight is 20/20 but are you surprised that, looking back, measures were way more lax and that terrorists didn't take advantage of that big gaping hole in the security of our containers coming into the U.S.?

Peter: Terrorism as we know it today is a somewhat recent phenomenon, Islamic terrorism. It didn't always exist in the way it does today. The death of bin Laden is a historic event because in some ways that could be the demise of the al Qaeda-style terrorism that created "9/11" and other attempted attacks both here and in Europe. So it was a huge wake-up call for our country. And I think that we clearly as a country didn't know and fully appreciate what that threat was and it took an event like that to make us realize what kind of world we really live in.

Q: In terms of the security that is currently in place at our ports, do you think there is room for improvement? For example, about 6 million containers come into the U.S. annually and only about 2 percent are physically inspected. Do you find that to be a problem?

Peter: I think that the answer to that question is that an enormous amount has been done already. The system is vastly safer than it was, and that has to be the starting point of any conversation. The fact that only 2 percent of containers are physically inspected was the number one example that opportunistic politicians would site in trying to take political advantage of perceived public insecurity about port security. The truth of the matter is that every container, 100 of containers, are evaluated. The 10+2 ISF importer security filing has given the government extensive data on every single container coming into the country.

Going back to Treasurer Secretary Paul O'Neil, who was treasurer during the September 11 attacks, I recall distinctly a speech he made shortly after "9/11", where he said we cannot allow the presence of terrorism and the threats against our country to be an excuse for our having our economy come to a screeching halt. That's an overstatement, but basically we have to have a functioning economy. Our country is strong because of our strong economy. That why the U.S. is what it is today. So, translating that into cargo coming in, which is what he was talking about, he said we cannot stop and open every single container because that would bring trade to a screeching halt. We have to be smarter about how we look at port security. We have to be smarter about how we evaluate containers so that they can move, because with 30 percent of our economy tied to international trade the system has to go on, and that's the system that's been built today. So those who say we have to inspect every single container are not appreciating the consequences of doing that.

And also, as many security experts have pointed out, inspecting every container doesn't necessarily improve security because it's so labor intensive, it's trying to come up with a 100 percent solution when we're never going to be fully safe. The big issue of course is a nuclear bomb coming into the country. When it comes to that, our country has taken measures to be very watchful for radiation, which I think it’s trying to say we do want 100 percent protection against that. In general, that idea would be an overreaction.

So no, I think we're good, to be honest with you. I think that the government has all the data that it needs, much more data than it ever had. I think it's learning how to use that data. It's learning how to make good use of the greater visibility that it has. That's why, to be honest with you, you don't see huge new proposals for major new container security programs that are on the horizon. It's the first time since September 11 where you haven't felt another wave of regulatory or security intervention in the supply chain. You don't feel that coming.
 

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