Two years later

Two years later

My travels often take me through the Lincoln Tunnel where, being the edgy New Yorker that I am, my thoughts often turn to issues of security. My paranoia aside, the tunnel offers an important perspective on larger issues of trade security.

Thousands of vehicles pass through the Lincoln Tunnel every day, many of them beat-up moving vans carrying who-knows-what and driven by who-knows-who. There are almost always a few police officers at the tunnel entrances on either side of the Hudson River, but you rarely see them pulling anyone over for a spot inspection. The situation is no different at the Ted Williams Tunnel, the Golden Gate Bridge, or any other major transport artery in the U.S.

What is going on at the Lincoln Tunnel is not dissimilar from the situation at U.S. borders. If every vehicle had to be inspected, the traffic would make the tunnel effectively impassable. Similarly, if every container of import cargo had to be opened, trade would come to a virtual halt. The first isn't acceptable to the regional economy of New York, the Bay Area or any other region. The other is just as unacceptable to the trade-dependent economy of the United States.

Yet it would be wrong, of course, to conclude that a sparse police presence at a tunnel entrance means that a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure is a sitting duck. That thinking gives little credit to domestic intelligence, immigration controls, or any other tool at the disposal of law-enforcement agencies for whom thwarting terrorism is now a primary mission.

The comparison of the Lincoln Tunnel to container ports from Long Beach to Savannah is helpful in trying to come to terms with what - two years after the Sept. 11 attacks - has become a thicket of often-conflicting theories and strategies for how to protect international supply chains from an act of terrorism, with no clear consensus.

Just as there are (we assume) invisible layers of protection surrounding the tunnel, any system of trade security must also be based on a multidimensional strategy that in the end allows for smooth flows through container terminals, airports or land-border crossings. It means that government officials and influential members of industry should resist easy, one-size-fits-all solutions, such as congressional bills calling for 100 percent container inspections.

Programs such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT, which has been pilloried for its voluntary nature, can thus be viewed as one such layer that will ultimately help build an effective trade security system. A voluntary system won't solve all the nation's trade-security problems, but it has forced the nearly 4,000 companies and organizations that have enrolled in C-TPAT to be much more security-conscious than they were before Sept. 11. In a system being built slowly and in stages, this is merely one piece of the puzzle. When officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge say the nation is safer now than it was two years ago, it's programs such as this that he's alluding to.

One factor at work protecting the tunnel is risk assessment. People deemed to pose a risk to the tunnel are being watched more closely than those who are not. As a law-abiding citizen, I assume I'm off the radar screen.

The situation isn't much different with trade. Some cargo is by definition less risky, either because it's moved by known shippers and logistics firms, or because it may come from a country of origin not known to be hostile. Any system that doesn't figure in such considerations will waste resources. That is why the concept of C-TPAT may not be all that's needed but isn't necessarily faulty; it makes sense that a supply chain managed by Target Corp. and its chosen logistics suppliers will be more secure than one in which cargo is consolidated by an unknown NVOCC. There are other safeguards. Since Sept. 11, coordination among intelligence and front-line agencies such as Customs has improved. It makes a lot more sense for Customs to intercept a single container based on a tip from the CIA than it does to scan every container as it's loaded on a ship.

Those who believe every container should be subjected to a radioactive screening, or be installed with a sensor able to pick up radioactivity, don't have the perspective of those in, say, the National Security Council, who may not be as worried, based on the information they have access to.

Don't get me wrong. For the past two years the JoC has been largely on the side of those who believe the government isn't doing enough, that the job of protecting the nation is far from complete. We still believe that. But the answer isn't one size fits all.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell@joc.com.