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Seaports Not as Safe As They Should Be



    Getty Images
    LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 22: Police officers keep watch over the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) Commodore Warwick cruise ship on its maiden call to the Port of Los Angeles February 22, 2006 at the Los Angeles, California area community of San Pedro. The QM2, the most expensive and largest ocean ship ever built, had to be backed into the harbor because its 1,100 foot length prevented it from reaching port in the usual way. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    As we commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, particular attention is focused on New York and Washington, D.C., where "credible evidence" of a possible attack has elevated already high security, with the greatest focus on airports.

    Such attention is only natural, considering the method of attack 10 years ago.

    But what about the nation's seaports?

    Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland rank first, second, and seventh in container ship volume among the nation's seaports.

    Combined, these facilities move about 40 percent of the container cargo transported in and out of the United States. By law, all cargo ships are supposed to undergo physical inspection--commonly by X-ray--by 2012.

    Yet, physical inspection takes place only about 5 percent of the time. This compares with a 20 percent rate for air cargo. There are no plans to increase inspections.

    Why the low rate?

    Department of Homeland Security representatives point to time and cost as major impediments to a 100 percent inspection program. Instead, DHS has a protocol that applies the closest scrutiny to the most suspicious places of origin.

    Given the mobility of terrorist devices and the hundreds of ports of origin, is that enough?

    So far, the system has worked; no terrorist devices have reached the U.S. via water transport and several plots have been thwarted abroad.

    Nevertheless, with millions of containers shipped in and out of the U.S. every year, the 5 percent screening level leaves a lot to chance.

    With so much of the international trade centered in California seaports, one wonders about the extent to which the state is truly vulnerable to terrorist activity. Let's hope we never find out.

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