On March 26, 2003, men with automatic weapons leapt off speedboats and boarded a chemical tanker sailing near the Strait of Malacca, a passage between Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They ripped out the communications gear, practiced steering the ship for about an hour, then left with technical documents.
This was not an isolated incident, according to officials of the International Maritime Bureau, who peg this and similar events (there were 445 ship attacks in 2003, 20% higher than 2002) to acts of piracy and not terrorism. IMB may be correct to point the finger at pirates, but these all too common occurrences worry U.S. Coast Guard officials who see it as a security breach that could affect our ports and the trucking industry.
Although there has been increased attention on the potential for using hazmat trucks as weapons, port security is lagging. About half of all incoming containers leave ports by truck, according to the Intermodal Association of North America, which means that an estimated 7- to 8-million truck-carried containers every year fan out across the continent.
Robert Jacksta, executive director of border security and facilitation at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that Customs only scrutinizes certain containers that are suspect because paperwork is not in order or because they received troubling information about it.
Security experts agree that it is more crucial to stop suspicious cargo from reaching U.S. ports because it can too easily be placed onto trucks for dispersal. To that end, Customs has stationed in about 20 foreign ports its own officers, who pre-inspect containers before they leave port. In addition, shippers must send a manifest 24-hours ahead of time. Like the FAST program for trucks at the U.S./Canada and U.S./Mexico borders, vetted shippers receive a cursory glance while others are subject to more rigorous inspection.
Still, these efforts are not enough for many in Congress. “The ports are the soft underbelly of our nation's security,” said Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who convened a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee On Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security to discuss port security.
Truck carriers are hoping that new initiatives will insure that dangerous containers never get loaded on their vehicles even if they make it into port.
Earlier this year, Dept. of Homeland Security officials announced that all ports are being outfitted with radiation detection devices to check containers for dirty bombs hidden among cargo. The Dept. of Energy is testing similar devices at weigh stations, with the first one installed on I-40 in Tennessee near the Watt Road exit, which has one of the highest volumes of truck traffic in the nation.
The next big event for truckers will be the implementation of a Transportation Worker Identification Card, which will be issued to every driver who enters a port, railway or airport. This will be a “smart card” capable of recording entry times, waiting times and other information about the user. No timetable has been set for its introduction, but many regions have already begun their own programs.
Last, the industry is seeing increased use of RFID tags on trucks that serve ports. Already installed on many entry gates, the tag will one day be able to tie together data about the truck, driver and container in seconds. West Coast ports are taking the lead.
Unfortunately, many ports did not meet the December 31 deadline for submitting their security plans. Only about 60% of 5,000 facilities and 75% of 10,000 vessel plans have been received, according to the Coast Guard.
This point is not lost on the FBI. “The intelligence we have certainly points to ports as a key vulnerability,” said Gary Bald, Inspector, Deputy Assistant Director of the Bureau's Counterterrorism Div. “I can't be more specific, but information indicates there is interest by terrorists.”