Flynn: Measured approach needed for intermodal security

Flynn: Measured approach needed for intermodal security

As the first anniversary of the 9-11 attacks arrives, the mass media has been busy serving up stories attempting to shed light on the inevitable question: Are we any better able to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist event today then we were a year ago? Regrettably, when it comes to bolstering security in the intermodal transportation system, the gap between where we are and where we must be is a yawning one. Global commerce remains extremely vulnerable to mass disruption should a container become a tool of terror.

There have been some notable post-9-11 initiatives. The nation owes a particular debt to U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, who has nearly single-handedly led the U.S. government's efforts to retrofit security into international supply chains through his Container Security Initiative and Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT). But the terrorist threat persists, huge vulnerabilities remain, and there are few tangible prevention and response measures in place to inspire public confidence in a system so important to sustaining global commerce.

Of course, the temptation to take a measured approach to responding to the new security imperative is understandable. With the exception of the anthrax mailings, we have survived the first post-9-11 year with no further terrorist acts on U.S. soil. And when it comes to fending off a determined terrorist bent on targeting a society as open and vast as the United States, there are obviously no silver bullets. Finally, it is appropriate to exercise due care when it comes to tinkering with the current efficient and reliable system for moving freight around the planet. The future of global prosperity and America's economic power depends on the vital role that system plays in underpinning international commerce.

The problem is that we are living on borrowed time. The catastrophic terrorist genie has been let out of the bottle. We must come to grips with the sobering reality that what we witnessed on Sept. 11 is how warfare will be fought in the 21st century. It is one of the sad ironies associated with the end of the Cold War that America's overwhelming military might has made terrorism the only real alternative for challenging U.S. power. Since it would be a fool's game to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. armed forces, those who are unhappy with the world's sole superpower are having to become more inventive. The United States is the Goliath and its current and future adversaries must find a David-like strategy to confront it.

The intermodal container makes a very attractive target for would-be Davids because it satisfies the age-old criteria of opportunity and motive. "Opportunity" flows from the complexity and size of the industry combined with the "time-is-money" imperative that underpins its operations. As it currently stands, a would-be terrorist can expect favorable odds that government authorities will be unable to detect and intercept contaminated cargo in advance.

"Motive" is derived primarily from the rising dependency on the box in moving so much of the world's freight. If a catastrophic terrorist event can be traced to a box, it will place the entire industry under the kind of scrutiny that commercial aviation faced immediately following the 9-11 attacks. The first step will likely be to shut down the flow of containers until the U.S. government can collect its bearings. This measure alone, if exercised for more then a few days, could bring global trade to its knees. But the real harm might come from the subsequent rush by politicians to legislate new and undoubtedly half-cocked measures whose aim is to reassure an anxious public that their government has matters well in hand.

The most poorly appreciated lesson that the Sept. 11 attacks teaches is that most of the disruption that flows from these attacks is likely to be self-inflicted. While this is lamentable, it is also understandable. The core function of a sovereign state is to provide for the safety and security of its people. The very legitimacy of a government is called into question when the public perception is that it has failed in the performance of this task.

The current state of container security practically assures government overreaction. Industry leaders who are quick to bemoan the potential costs associated with undertaking new security measures need to put themselves in the shoes of Customs Commissioner Bonner or Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta. Imagine being called before Congress to testify after a container full of high explosives - or worse, a weapon of mass destruction - has gone off in one of the nation's major seaports or in our city streets. When there are scores of innocent dead Americans scattered around the scene of the incident, what will they be able to say to defend the existing system safeguards?

What they need to be able to say is the United States and its trading partners have a credible system for managing the risk that boxes can be turned into weapon-delivery vehicles. In theory, accomplishing that requires three things. First, there must be some way to assure that when a container is loaded, it contains legitimate and authorized goods. Second, once that container is on the move through the intermodal transportation system, there needs to be a way to confirm that its integrity has not been compromised. And, third, government agents must have effective tools on hand for the timely targeting and inspection of containers for which they have concerns.

In short, we need a system that provides supply-chain visibility and accountability - and sooner vs. later. Will this system ever be failsafe? Of course not. But our objective can and should be more measured - it is to make the system sustainable even in the aftermath of catastrophic terrorist attacks that target or exploit it. As with aviation safety, restoring public confidence after a disaster requires:

? The ability to point to a baseline of existing safeguards that are credible

? Quickly conducting investigations after the incident that can pinpoint what went wrong

? Demonstrating immediate actions are being taken to respond to those findings

Imagine how difficult it would be to woo the public back on a plane if the government and aviation industry simply shrugged their shoulders when a commercial airliner exploded or crashed.

Industry leaders and government officials should be working overtime to fend off a potential crisis in confidence in a system so indispensable to sustaining global prosperity. They need to continue to work together to build the kind of baseline security that C-TPAT is designed to advance. They need to develop and test technological solutions for monitoring the location and interior integrity of containers so that low-risk containers can be credibly judged as low-risk. The data-sharing issue has to be solved. Effectively targeting high-risk containers cannot be done with unreliable post- or just-in-time data. Finally, providing the resources and protocols for inspections at loading and transshipment ports is far more effective and desirable than doing this at arrival ports. Traditional territory-based notions of sovereignty should be reconciled with the need for a systems approach to security vs. a border-centric one.

As long as the principle of reciprocity is honored, even this potentially contentious issue should be solvable.

After years of being ignored or relegated to the sidelines, security must become an organic part of the intermodal transportation industry. After a year of more fits than starts, we need to get on with this vital agenda.

Dr. Stephen E. Flynn is senior fellow, National Security Studies & the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Chair in National Security for the Council of Foreign Relations. He can be reached at, or (212) 434-9676.