Skip to main content

Securing America's Sea Borders

Chapter Four
Securing America's Sea Borders

Securing about seventy-five hundred miles of land borders with Mexico and Canada is a difficult job, but those entrusted with protecting the ninety-five thousand miles of sea borders of the United States are faced with an almost impossible one. Long before the attacks of September 11, experts were warning that port security was the most glaring weakness in the nation's security network. In August 2000, a presidential advisory commission concluded that "the state of security in U.S. seaports generally ranges from poor to fair, and in a few cases good."58

The nation's 360 ports and extensive coastline got little attention, however, until after the terrorist attacks—and even then, making air traffic safer was the government's main priority. But many experts say that as flimsy as airline security was before September 11, port security was far worse. "If you think the aviation community is bad," says one transportation official, "the maritime community has never thought about security other than anti-piracy."59

A Host of Targets

For terrorists, seaports present a host of targets, simply because by their nature ports must be connected to cities and transportation. A dirty bomb detonated in a U.S. seaport, for instance, would affect far more than the port itself. Fourteen of the twenty largest American cities are on seaports, and nearby there are fuel terminals, nuclear power plants, and an infrastructure of highways, bridges, and railroads.

Stephen Flynn, a retired commander of the U.S. Coast Guard and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations cites Newark, New Jersey, as an example. "In one mile," he explains, "you have one of the largest container ports in the world, you have the rail link that connects the northeast to the rest of the nation, you have the New Jersey turnpike and Newark International Airport."60

The ports are vital to the nation's economy—much more so than either air or land traffic. Approximately 95 percent of all U.S. foreign trade comes through seaports, and $1 trillion of the gross national product. According to Coast Guard admiral Terry Cross, "We think shutting down one or two major ports would do more damage to our economy than September 11."61

"Nuke in the Box"

The potential for sabotage of cargo containers frightens many experts the most. No fewer than 7.2 million huge metal cargo containers—the size of the trailer of a semi—arrive in U.S. ports each year. At the time of the terrorist attacks, most containers were assumed to contain whatever was marked on the ship's manifest—whether it was computer parts, furniture, electronic equipment, or any one of an endless list of goods imported each day. Even by September 2002, inspectors were only able to check 2 percent of the sixteen thousand containers that had arrived in U.S. ports every day of the year.

Inspectors worry about what they call the "nuke in the box" scenario, in which some sort of nuclear device is smuggled inside a container. As the National Academy of Sciences points out, there is a great amount of nuclear material circulating around the world, much of it stolen from the former Soviet Union. In an August 2002 report the organization noted, "Clandestine production of special nuclear material by states or terrorist groups …for use against the United States represents a significant and near-term threat to homeland security."62

Not only could containers be used to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the United States, they could be used to smuggle in terrorists themselves. In May 2002, a security report found that at least twenty-five extremists from the Middle East had likely infiltrated the U.S. border by stowing away in containers. In October 2002, Italian authorities found an al-Qaeda operative locked in a shipping container bound for Canada. Inside the container, the man had a bed, a makeshift bathroom, airport maps and security passes, and a phony airport mechanic's certificate.

However, the cargo containers on incoming ships are not the only danger. The ships themselves can be used as weapons, in much the same way airplanes were used on September 11. Cargo ships are very slow, but they are massive, and if a terrorist gained control of a ship and rammed a bridge, an oil

tanker, or an offshore nuclear power plant or petrochemical complex, it would be catastrophic.

The Coast Guard

The Coast Guard has always been responsible for keeping the nation's sea borders secure. However, before September 11, only 2 percent of the resources allotted the Coast Guard went toward securing ports and U.S. waters. Instead, most of its time and effort was spent enforcing the law that prohibits foreign fishing boats within two hundred miles of the borders, catching drug smugglers, enforcing anti-pollution laws, and helping boaters in distress.

For years, say members of the Coast Guard, they have been the poor relation to the marines or the U.S. Navy, with neither the budget nor the respect of those military branches. The Coast Guard's fleet is the seventh largest navy in the

world, but out of forty-one naval fleets in existence today, it ranks thirty-ninth in the age of its vessels. One reporter noted "leaky boats that are too often stuck at the pier, under repair; the gaps in its emergency communications network; [and] a self-perpetuating condition of short staffing and inexperience that demands constant overtime work."63

However, President Bush called for a 15 percent budget increase for the Coast Guard for 2003—the largest increase in U.S. Coast Guard history. In addition, the Coast Guard was added to the Department of Homeland Security, so it would have access to the same intelligence as the Customs and Border Protection agents.

Thinking Like Terrorists

In the months since September 11, the Coast Guard, together with other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, has begun tackling the problems that could potentially be exploited by terrorists. Since the large volume of cargo containers is worrisome, that has been the first issue addressed in port security. One program utilizes U.S. inspectors in some of the largest seaports around the world, including Rotterdam, Singapore, and others from which much of U.S. cargo originates. By coordinating efforts with foreign inspectors, containers that may seem suspicious can be inspected carefully before they are even loaded on ships. By April 2003, the United States had signed agreements with eighteen ports worldwide.

Another important improvement in shipping is part of the Maritime Security Act, which President Bush signed in December 2002. Among other things, the act requires that any shipping company planning to arrive in a U.S. port must notify the Coast Guard within ninety-six hours before it arrives. In its notification, the shipping company must provide detailed information—where the ship originated, its crew list, a list of all its cargo, and its last port of call.

That information is relayed from the Coast Guard to the new National Vessel Movement Center in West Virginia.

Investigators there check the specific data against intelligence and criminal databases. Knowing that a crew member may have been suspected of illegal activity, for example, may raise investigators' eyebrows, and can make the cargo a bit more suspect.

With early knowledge of cargo and crew, inspectors then go through the list of containers and give each a ranking for how much risk it entails, from 0 (no risk) to 300 (highest risk). Any container that gets a rank of 190 or more must be inspected by local agents before it arrives in a U.S. port. "If a container has some nasty stuff in it," explains one port official, "once it gets to this port, it's already too late. You want it to go back to the source."64

By the year 2010, the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations, will require all oceangoing commercial ships to have a transmitter that can broadcast such detailed information about its crew and cargo, as well as the ship's exact location and speed, as it is en route. In the United States that will save the Coast Guard time, because the West Virginia investigators will get the information directly—the moment the ship leaves port. Any ship that does not comply will become an immediate high-interest target for U.S. intelligence and the Coast Guard.

Boarders at the Borders

Another improvement that is helping the Coast Guard keep ports secure is the addition of special agents known as sea marshals. In the months following September 11, teams of sea marshals would intercept every ship that came within ten miles or so of the port.

As a ship approached port, armed teams of sea marshals would pull their boat alongside, board the ship, and monitor the crew as it was brought to port. Some headed to the engine room, some to the rear steering compartment, and some to the bridge of the vessel. All of these are places from which a terrorist could take over control of the ship.

Soon after the extra sea marshals were added, one ship captain said that he was glad to have the sea marshals around, for there were so many ways a terrorist could gain control of a ship. "A terrorist could infiltrate … the crew," he explained. "A terrorist could come on board a vessel on a stowaway kind of capacity—in a container, for example. A terrorist could board as a passenger."65

The increased presence of the sea marshals provided a sense of security; however, it became evident by September 2002 that the $1 million per day it cost to have them board each incoming ship was too much. Today, sea marshals still escort each ship, but they only board those that have raised some suspicion with the National Vessel Movement Center agents. Some are boarded if they have strayed from their course, or if the type of ship would be a tempting target for terrorists, such as a cruise ship, which carries up to five thousand civilians.

One sea marshal says that if he is not comfortable with the feeling he gets while on the bridge with the crew, he

immediately assumes control. A typical order from a sea marshal in such circumstances, he says, would be, "All hands on the bridge are going to go ahead and get on their knees except for the essential personnel. We're going to lock down the bridge and provide security for the pilot."66

Checking the Cargo

Once a ship is in port, its cargo is again subjected to scrutiny. Although inspectors do not open most of the containers, those coming off any ship about which the Coast Guard has suspicions are all put through a system called the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, or VACIS. The system was developed in the late 1990s to help Customs inspectors search cargo for illegal drug shipments—especially along the Mexican border. However, after September 11 the government began purchasing VACIS units—at about $1 million apiece—in great numbers, using them all around the country to search for terrorist weapons.

The system used at the docks uses a long boom extending from the body of a truck. At the end of the boom is a box which shoots low-intensity gamma rays from a tiny pellet of a radioactive isotope. As the large cargo containers are rolled past the box, agents inside the truck view the image on a computer screen. Experts say that gamma rays are far more effective for this type of job than X rays, because gamma rays are not easily absorbed by solid material, and therefore can penetrate more than four inches of solid steel.

In March 2003, one reporter watched as a team of inspectors using the VACIS system looked at an image that appeared to be different than what it was labeled. "You see, this one is supposed to be household goods," said one inspector, "but look here." He pointed to a large cylindrical shape. "That's obviously something really dense, and it doesn't look like household goods," he said. "We're going to open that one up. Look, it could be a propane tank. It could be a statue."67

Whenever the VACIS image shows anything out of the ordinary, inspectors force open the container. In this case, the suspicious shape turned out to be an industrial oven which had been packed in the wrong crate, but agents know that they have no choice but to check each time there is any question. "It's the time you don't check something out, that's the time you'll wish you had," says one inspector. "Being careful sends a message to anyone who wishes the United States harm. It says there's a lot of people working here around the clock to protect our borders."68

Above the Water, Under the Water

In addition to trying to monitor the contents of the large number of cargo containers, the Coast Guard is applying a great deal of effort in other parts of port security. For instance, the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS) keeps track of data such as wind speed and direction, currents, and salt content of the water in a port area. Originally intended to give information to ship captains, this system of sensors and shore instruments was developed after a freighter that had no current information about port conditions rammed into a bridge in Tampa, Florida, killing thirty-five people.

Since September 11, experts have hoped that PORTS could be a valuable tool in fighting bioterrorism or ecoterrorism. If someone were to release toxins into the water, purposely causing an ecological disaster, PORTS would track the movement of such substances immediately, giving Coast Guard personnel enough of a warning so that they might be able to contain the problem. PORTS data about currents and wind can also tell Coast Guard officials which areas of a harbor are navigable at any given time. "It doesn't predict where a bad guy may pop up," says one San Francisco marine expert, "but it could predict—if someone's coming in a small boat—where they could or couldn't enter the bay and how."69

Most of the PORTS instruments are mounted on buoys, but the Coast Guard uses another tool that is kept completely underwater. Known as the UAV, short for Underwater Autonomous Vehicle, it looks like a small torpedo and can patrol a port area, gathering and transmitting several kinds of important data. UAVs can take samples of water to make certain it has not been poisoned, or take pictures of underwater bridge supports to make certain they have not been tampered with.

UAVs are very new, but already scientists are experimenting with a new generation of the instruments which will have even more capabilities, such as being able to stay underwater for very long periods of time. By docking every so often at underwater stations connected to shore by fiber-optic cables, the UAVs will be able to recharge their batteries, download information, and receive new instructions.

More Money Needed

But while a great deal of progress has been made in strengthening the security of the nation's sea borders, many officials insist that there is much more to be done. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has been concerned that the ports are not getting money promised them after September 11. The federal government has been slow to provide the funds that have already been appropriated, she says, and as a result the ports are unable to purchase equipment and hire enough inspectors to do the job. "I believe," she says, "that our seaports remain almost as vulnerable today as they were before 9/11."70

Senator Fritz Hollins of South Carolina agrees. He has spoken angrily about Congress appropriating large amounts of money for border security, only to have lawmakers bicker about how it should be divided. By making border security a political issue and delaying the important funding, Hollins says, agencies are not getting funds when they need them. "Everybody talks about port security," he said disgustedly in April 2003, after Congress voted against releasing $1 billion for port security that had been appropriated earlier, "but they don't do anything about it. Every Republican and every Democrat committed to this funding …but they weren't willing to put the real dollars behind that commitment. They just aren't taking the issue seriously."71

It is not only lawmakers who are complaining. A highranking Coast Guard official was asked to give the president and the nation assurance that the nation's sea borders were being adequately defended. However, he declined. In his words, he was asked to say "that we've got a handle on this, that the maritime component of this national security package is okay. It is not. Do we have an adequate inventory of vessels, aircraft, and communications equipment? No, we do not."72

"The Answer Is Not Searching Every Container"

The lack of funds that actually reach the Coast Guard and the ports may be catastrophic, say some. Without the technology and the manpower necessary, the sea borders are in danger of being compromised. Trade experts predict a heavier volume of shipping trade—as much as double by 2020. With more than 14 million cargo containers coming to America's ports then, a well-organized system of security will be critical.

Even with the delays in funding, some are optimistic about the future of U.S. ports. Many who work in security say that since September 11 there has been a great deal more cooperation between the various intelligence-gathering agencies and the Coast Guard and Customs inspectors. Cooperation like that is even more critical at the international level—otherwise the task becomes overwhelming. "The answer," says one Coast Guard official, "is not searching every container. I think the answer is a combination of public and private partnerships … and programs to get into the supply chain. This is a management problem."73

A Coast Guard captain of the Port of San Francisco feels very strongly that, in time, the sea borders will be very secure—as long as everyone remains watchful. "After the Exxon Valdez [oil spill disaster] we became more responsive to oil spills," he explains. "It's similar with the terror threat. There are lots of challenges out there—prevention, coordination of effort. We're just beginning to understand the threat, and to respond."74

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Securing America's Sea Borders." Lucent Library of Homeland Security: Defending the Borders: The Role of Border and Immigration Control. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Securing America's Sea Borders." Lucent Library of Homeland Security: Defending the Borders: The Role of Border and Immigration Control. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/securing-americas-sea-borders

"Securing America's Sea Borders." Lucent Library of Homeland Security: Defending the Borders: The Role of Border and Immigration Control. . Retrieved November 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/securing-americas-sea-borders

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.