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Just One Port, Though A Big One

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Old 06-11-2005, 08:43 PM
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Just One Port, Though A Big One

Is the US Mainland secure? Everyone sleeping well? Not so those in charge of our security, for a variety of reasons:

Early Warning

By Siobhan Gorman and Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., National Journal
National Journal Group Inc.
Friday, June 10, 2005

The Port of Los Angeles -- Twelve thousand times a day, the hulking cranes outside Noel Cunningham's office unload another shipping container. Any one of them could conceal a nuclear weapon -- and Cunningham's first clue, he fears, might be a blinding flash outside his window.

As director of operations and emergency management for the Port of Los Angeles, Cunningham is responsible for securing a facility which, together with the neighboring Port of Long Beach, is the gateway for 44 percent of the goods that come into the United States. A bomb that gets through here is just a drive down the highway from any city in 48 states. "All the other threats, we can deal with," Cunningham says. "But the nuclear threat is probably the one we wouldn't recover from."

Cunningham's security challenge is hardly unique: America's porous borders and winding coastlines are impossible to fortify against bad people determined to get bad things into this country. The security consensus since 9/11 is that government officials should do everything they can to catch terrorists before they can launch an attack, but that they must realize they won't be able to catch all of them. The equation regarding the nuclear threat is different, however: Letting just one nuclear bomb through carries unacceptable costs -- mortal, economic, and psychological. So, this threat demands a response that -- ideally -- leaves nothing to chance.

With that in mind, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Cunningham and his Long Beach counterpart commissioned nuclear-security workups of their ports. The conclusion: Port officials could get the best protection against attacks by persuading officials abroad to tighten security at the foreign ports that feed shipments into Los Angeles and Long Beach. That's the mission that Cunningham and his colleagues began to pursue, at first meeting considerable push-back from the U.S. government. Now, their approach is a national model.

"The good news and the bad news is that Los Angeles is the best in the country," says University of California (Los Angeles) public policy professor Amy Zegart. She gives it a grade of C. A security expert who has studied the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex extensively, Zegart says that while Los Angeles has made more headway than any other jurisdiction, even after "superhuman effort" to coordinate jealously independent agencies, its security system remains full of holes, both technological and political.

The story is similar at the national level. Adm. James Loy, who until recently was the deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, recalled a series of "Deputies Committee" meetings in the White House Situation Room in early 2004 at which federal security officials expressed nagging worries about efforts to combat nuclear terrorism. This was the one threat that required a "zero-tolerance policy," Loy said, and current efforts weren't cutting it.

Within months, Loy would become one of the leading advocates in the federal government for a new office dedicated to bolstering the country's nuclear-detection policy and technology. In Loy's vision, this office would drive a "mini-Manhattan Project" to push for a technological breakthrough that could revolutionize America's ability to detect nuclear material at its borders, inside its borders, and around the world. The proposal for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office made its debut in the president's 2006 budget request.

But headway has been modest, at best. Many critics say the security system currently under development for ports and border crossings has inherent flaws. The chief weakness is that the system depends on newly installed "radiation portal monitors" -- which can't reliably detect the most-likely-to-be used material: highly enriched uranium. Nor can the monitors detect a shielded dirty bomb. And even if the devices could detect every type of nuclear material, as outgoing House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., points out, the current system assumes "that terrorists will do us a favor by bringing their nuclear material through a radiation portal monitor."

Indeed, it would be all too easy for terrorists to evade the portal monitors altogether by shipping a nuclear weapon -- whole or in parts -- on a yacht or in a truck, or even by carrying it in piece by piece in backpacks, or smuggling it across any number of unprotected sections of the northern and southern borders. Uranium, ironically, is so low in radioactivity that it is safe to handle without gloves, so a bomb's worth could even be broken into hundreds of half-pound chunks and smuggled into the country in people's pockets. One hundred kilograms (220 pounds) of enriched uranium, more than enough for a crude bomb like the one that shattered Hiroshima, would fit into a box 6 inches on a side -- about the size of a 1-gallon water jug. And while the Hiroshima bomb weighed 5 tons, a terrorist bomb designed to be detonated on the ground instead of dropped from an airplane could probably fit into a large SUV.

For decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States and the Soviet Union were safely deadlocked in a nuclear stalemate, because each country could count on its radar to detect the missiles coming and allow time for retaliation. In Noel Cunningham's world, there's no such heads-up. But with the right mix of intelligence, new technology, and sensible policy, there could be.

Some security experts say we shouldn't get too exercised over the nuclear threat, because the likelihood that we'll actually face it is low. But Cunningham says while that may be true for the country at large, it's not so for his port, according to the intelligence reports he sees every day. "We don't think the probability is low. We really don't," he says. "We have made that our top priority."

Detection Is Hard to Do
The best way to understand the challenges that Cunningham faces in protecting his port is to see it from on high. Flying over the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, Cunningham's deputy for homeland security, Lt. Michael Graychik, points out the cruise ship terminal, several shipping terminals, a waste treatment plant, a petroleum processing plant, the Queen Mary, and wrecking yards. "Some of [the yards] don't have fences; they're just there," he says. Graychik then motions to three freeways -- Interstate 405, U.S. Highway 110, and Interstate 710 -- that thread through the port, and a couple of bridges as well. "In some ports, you close the gate and the port's closed. You can't do that here," he says. "There's no gate to close. You can see how porous it is."

Collectively, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach span more than 7,000 acres. Even their own managers don't always know where the ports begin and end. "We use a map with different colors," to sort out what belongs to whom, Graychik explains.

Still, he believes that even if a nuclear weapon arrives at his port undetected, it's not likely to be detonated there. "I envision a nuclear attack occurring in a place like downtown L.A. before it occurs here -- tearing the heart out of the city," he says. The Los Angeles-Long Beach complex is perhaps the ideal conduit for a nuke, however. It marks the beginning of what's known as the Alameda Corridor, which is the main rail route out of the complex to the rest of the country -- and which ends on the eastern side of downtown Los Angeles.

That scenario is what keeps Los Angeles City Council member Jack Weiss up at night. "If a nuclear weapon were smuggled into Los Angeles via the Port of Los Angeles and transported via the Alameda Corridor into downtown L.A.," he says, "I would be shocked if anybody would have any prayer of finding out about that." Weiss represents one of the wealthiest districts in the city, and his constituents rarely, if ever, talk to him about terrorism. But as a former assistant U.S. attorney and Capitol Hill national security aide, he's mounted a personal quest to raise awareness, and money, for terrorism prevention and preparedness. "It's inevitable," he says of a nuclear attack somewhere in the country. "I don't even view it in terms of risk."

But Weiss says he's fighting an uphill battle, because local officials are not elected for their anti-terrorism credentials. "The next attack, if and when it comes, will not galvanize most leaders in most American cities to do more," he contends. "The attitude will continue to be, 'It can't and won't happen here.' " He notes that the Los Angeles Police Department just changed the name of its Counter-Terrorism Bureau to the Critical Incident Management Bureau. "The chief of police believed that if he kept using the word 'terrorism,' it would be hard to keep getting additional resources from the City Council," Weiss says with a mix of exasperation and resignation. [... lots more]
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