Steve Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations has a new article in the Far Eastern Economic Review that makes a strong argument on the need for governments around the world to do more to protect the port and cargo security domain from the threat of terror:
…the days when policy makers could take safe transportation for granted are long past. The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and subsequent attacks on Madrid and London show that transport systems have become favored targets for terrorist organizations. It is only a matter of time before terrorists breach the superficial security measures in place to protect the ports, ships and the millions of intermodal containers that link global producers to consumers.
Should that breach involve a weapon of mass destruction, the United States and other countries will likely raise the port security alert system to its highest level, while investigators sort out what happened and establish whether or not a follow-on attack is likely. In the interim, the flow of all inbound traffic will be slowed so that the entire intermodal container system will grind to a halt. In economic terms, the costs associated with managing the attackâ€™s aftermath will substantially dwarf the actual destruction from the terrorist event itself.
Flynn discusses the various programs developed since 9/11 (many US-led) to improve port security: the Container Security Initiative, the National Targeting Center, C-TPAT, the ISPS code, the Department of Energy’s Megaports Initiative, et al. But he argues that these programs are insufficient, and do not adequately address the threats that we face:
Ostensibly, the flurry of U.S. government initiatives since 9/11 suggests substantial progress is being made in securing the global trade and transportation system. Unfortunately, all this activity should not be confused with real capability. For one thing, the approach has been piecemeal, with each agency pursuing its signature program with little regard for other initiatives. There are also vast disparities in the resources that the agencies have been allocated, ranging from an $800 million budget for the Department of Energyâ€™s Megaport initiative to no additional funding for the Coast Guard to support its congressionally mandated compliance to the ISPS Code. Even more problematic are some of the questionable assumptions about the nature of the terrorist threat that underpin these programs.
In an effort to secure funding and public support, agency heads and the White House have oversold the contributions of these new initiatives. Against a backdrop of inflated and unrealistic expectations, the public is likely to be highly skeptical of official assurances in the aftermath of a terrorist attack involving the intermodal transportation system. Scrambling for fresh alternatives to reassure anxious and angry citizens, the White House and Congress are likely to impose Draconian inspection protocols that dramatically raise costs and disrupt crossborder trade flows.
Flynn then makes a persuasive case that the risk management approach pursued by the United States for cargo is inadequate given the lack of meaningful intelligence about cargo moving through the system, and argues that using C-TPAT certifications as a key input into the risk assessment process is dubious, given the voluntary nature of compliance, the possibility of an insider threat, and the fact that terrorists only have to be “successful” once.
He concludes the article with a set of recommendations:
- New partnerships between the US, EU, and ASEAN to promote third-party audits of ISPS and World Customs Organization compliance.
- The creation of a new multilateral auditing organization for cargo security.
- The rapid adoption of ISO standards for container tracking and integrity monitoring.
- Government endorsement of innovative container screening technology piloted in Hong Kong in the last two years.
Overall, a good piece (worth reading in full) from Flynn on an important issue that requires renewed attention and initiative on a global basis.