The New Yorker magazine has an excellent long piece this week on port security in New York and New Jersey – not available online, but excerpted in this Q&A with the author. The story provides a good overview of the on-the-ground realities at the port, describing the various facilities that make up the Port of NY & NJ, looking at the mafia’s persisting influence on the Port, and analyzing the steps taken to improve port security since 9/11.
The most interesting anecdote from a homeland security perspective in the piece was this previously untold story about the so-called “Garment District Plot”:
In early 2003, a young Pakistani man, Uzair Paracha, was introduced to three Al Qaeda operatives in Karachi. The Al Qaeda men, who included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11th attacks, said that they wanted to invest in Parachaâ€™s familyâ€™s import-export firm, which had an office in the garment district. Uzair Paracha had grown up partly in New York City, and had a green card. He wasnâ€™t particularly interested in jihad, but he was interested in the Al Qaeda menâ€™s money. So he agreed to help one of them, Wajid Khan, establish a fictitious presence in the U.S. for immigration purposes. Meanwhile, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was seized in Pakistan, and he soon gave up Parachaâ€™s name to interrogators. Paracha was arrested in the garment district in March, 2003.
The most interesting aspect of the case, though, is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly told interrogators that his interest in the Parachasâ€™ businessâ€”they primarily exported apparel to the U.S.â€”stemmed from his interest in smuggling explosives into the country in shipping containers. Itâ€™s doubly interesting, I think, because one of the Parachasâ€™ customers was Kmart. Now, Kmart is one of this countryâ€™s largest importers, and, as such, qualifies, under one of the container-security programs that helps U.S. Customs decide which containers to inspect, as a â€œtrusted shipper,â€ whose containers normally pass through a â€œgreen laneâ€ in which very few shipments are delayed for extra inspection. In other words, Al Qaeda was poised to exploit this green lane in order to smuggle weapons into the United States.
This anecdote provides a compelling counterpoint to an argument which has gained currency in recent months: that the container security threat (at least as it pertains to nuclear weapons or materials) is overhyped. For example, Alane Kochems and Jim Carafano at the Heritage Foundation wrote last month that “the nuke-in-a-box is an unlikely terrorist tactic.” And Randall Larsen opined against excessive investments in inspection & detection in the Wall Street Journal last month:
What about nukes? I asked nuclear physicists and security professionals at a Homeland Security panel: “If you were advising al Qaeda on how to smuggle a Hiroshima-type bomb into the U.S., how many of you would suggest renting a 40-foot container and putting it on a ship bound for a U.S. seaport?” No hand was raised.
But this anecdote provides clear evidence that the master planner of the 9/11 attacks was interested in transporting explosives (or possibly worse) in cargo containers. Doesn’t this warrant a reconsideration of any dismissal of this threat?
To their credit, Kochems, Carafano and Larsen propose a number of other homeland security activities in which the nation should invest to improve port and cargo security, such as improving intelligence, strengthening the Coast Guard, and redoubling investment in counter-proliferation and threat reduction (e.g. Nunn-Lugar) programs. I agree that these are areas that should be improved, but not as an either/or proposition with improved cargo detection and tracking capabilities.
There are a number of other very interesting details in The New Yorker piece – if you follow port security issues, the June 19th issue is worth buying on the newsstand.