A Fresh Look at Port Security
Secretary Michael Chertoff | DHS
It often amazes me how certain myths about our Department’s efforts continue to endure despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Take port security, for example. I regularly see stories in the media asserting that our nation’s seaports are insecure as if we’ve done nothing since 9/11 to protect them. Just yesterday, a columnist for the New York Times casually repeated that claim.
I suspect a lot of this venting is simply intellectual laziness by those who prefer to recycle old sound bites rather than do their homework. In some cases, a deeper misunderstanding is taking place about how ports function in the real world. I’m referring to those who contend that because we don’t physically inspect every one of the 11 million shipping containers arriving at our ports each year, our entire system of security is compromised. Incidentally, those same individuals never explain that if we did open every box, there’d be a line of ships stretching across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans waiting to enter our country.
As we approach our Department’s fifth anniversary, I’d like to step back for a moment and take a fresh look at what we’ve done since 9/11 to protect our ports and maritime commerce, and hopefully dispel some of the stubborn inaccuracies that continue to persist.
First of all, it is factually wrong to suggest we’ve shortchanged funding for our ports. In fact, we’ve invested more than $16 billion to date. This includes funding for the Coast Guard’s port security operations, deployment of our personnel and equipment overseas, research into science and technology development, $1.39 billion in port security grants to states and port authorities, and hardening of physical assets and infrastructure.
Second, we’ve pushed our security perimeter outward so that we can identify and interdict suspicious cargo before it even has a chance to threaten our country. We now require information and intelligence on every single U.S. bound shipping container before it’s loaded onto a foreign ship. We’ve stationed CBP officers at 58 overseas ports accounting for 86 percent of the container traffic that comes to the United States. We’ve deployed equipment overseas to scan cargo for radiation before it leaves for our country. And we’ve proposed new regulations to collect more commercial data from the private sector so we can better track international shipments.
Third, we’ve taken common-sense measures to protect our ports here at home. Every major port and maritime facility in our country must now file a security plan with the Coast Guard that identifies its vulnerabilities and sets a plan to address them. We’ve enrolled close to 80,000 maritime workers into our Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, which provides secure identification to workers who pass terrorist and criminal background checks. Most significantly, we now scan virtually 100 percent of containers for radiation upon their arrival to prevent the entry of potential weapons of mass destruction. Prior to 9/11, we scanned zero percent of such cargo.
Have we achieved perfect security at our ports? Of course not. No human endeavor will ever achieve perfection and no system of security is infallible. But we have dramatically elevated our protection and built successive layers of security that have made our ports more secure than they have ever been. And we’ve done this without destroying the underlying reason for having ports in the first place – the efficient movement of people and commerce.
Those who don’t put in the effort to get their facts straight, or who use misinformation to suggest we are ignoring our maritime sector, are not serving their readers or the American people. They also do a disservice to the men and women who stand watch over our ports and our frontlines every day.