[ OUR OPINION ]
WHILE Congress pours billions of dollars into bolstering airport security, the nation's seaports remain vulnerable. Adequate security is not likely to be put in place without a concerted effort by the federal government in cooperation with other countries. A worldwide system of inspecting and tracking cargo vessels should be a priority in achieving adequate national security.
Ships need worldwide
While airport security is being beefed up, U.S. seaports pose risks of terrorist attack.
Hawaii residents rely on ships for 98 percent of their goods. Nationally, 7.8 million containers holding $480 billion worth of goods arrived at ports last year. Only 2 percent of those shipping containers were inspected, according to the U.S. Customs Service. This link in the nation's security network is deplorably weak.
"The threat of a low-grade nuclear weapon being shipped into a U.S. port is not far-fetched," Customs Chief of Staff David Cohen said last month at a homeland and maritime security conference in Cambridge, Mass. "The impact of such a tragedy would be catastrophic."
Honolulu Harbor may be safer than many domestic ports because most foreign shipments to Hawaii already have entered the United States on the mainland and have been subjected to random Customs and Coast Guard inspections like the additional ones they face in Hawaii. Verifying the contents of all containers at Hawaii's ports would bring the state's economy to a standstill.
Instead, federal maritime officials are working toward a system that includes prescreening of American-bound cargo at the points of origin and the electronic tracking of those ships as they cross the seas. The system includes satellite-based global tracking as effective as the air-defense tracking of incoming planes. Installation of the devices will be required by next year on cruise ships, tankers and ships carrying chemicals.
The United Nations' International Maritime Organization is considering a proposal that would require all ships by 2008 to be equipped with the electronic devices transmitting the ship's identity, speed, position and course. The United States. has asked that the deadline be moved up to 2004. If the U.N. agency refuses to change the deadline, the White House's Office of Homeland Security plans to press world leaders at G-8 economic meetings in June to insist on such action.
Nearly half of the containers arriving in the United States originate in 10 foreign ports, and three of those are in China, which U.S. officials expect to resist the tracking system. U.S. officials are seeking agreement from other countries with busy ports before approaching China for its assent. Diplomatic pressure at the highest level is in order.
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