Gloria Wakatsuki, above left, and her husband, Kats, waited outside the gate to Pier 2 on April 3 while law enforcement officials sorted out the presence of possible explosives in a pallet of boxes that were scheduled to be loaded aboard the ship Crystal Harmony. The load was cleared before noon and the Wakatsukis got aboard for a trip to Japan.

Isle port incident
reveals dangers

Airport security has improved,
but ports are still vulnerable
to terrorists, experts say

Maui drills cover 'dirty bomb'

By Sally Apgar

It was about 2 a.m. when the bomb-sniffing dogs began circling and snorting at a pallet of supplies.

The pallet was being loaded onto a cruise ship docked at Honolulu Harbor for the night. Dockworkers immediately isolated the pallet, placing it off to the side of Pier 2.

At 7:30 that same morning on April 3, two U.S. Coast guard inspectors on foot patrol stumbled upon the pallet and questioned nearby dockworkers. As soon as they learned about the reaction of the private security dogs, they implemented prearranged security procedures.

The Coast Guard sealed off the area around the cruise ship, called in the Honolulu Police Department's bomb squad, contacted other federal agencies and local authorities, and completely shut down the Port of Honolulu for more than three hours.

In the end, there was no bomb. The dogs' reaction was triggered by a box of fluorescent light bulbs.

But that incident in which a suspected bomb sat ignored for five hours has been cited in Congressional testimony on port security several times as an example of the need for swift, effective communication among the federal, state and local government agencies, union dockworkers and the private commercial interests that work a port.

The CSX Consumer arrived Oct. 10 at Honolulu Harbor, guided by a pair of tugboats. The state's main carriers and other companies are stepping up security at their facilities to guard against possible terror attacks, but experts say security is still lacking at most of the nation's ports.

These different groups have not typically shared information and at times even have competing interests.

"That incident was really indicative of the challenges presented by all the shared responsibilities for a port," said JayEtta Hecker, the General Accounting Office's director of physical infrastructure who has testified about that event before Congress.

In Hawaii, the communications lessons seem to have been learned. The proper authorities were immediately called in a subsequent episode in which private security dogs singled out a pallet. No bomb was found.

In the fifteen months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, airport security has dramatically increased while resources and money have not been poured into securing the nation's seaports.

"I think the biggest change is in people's attitudes and awareness," said U.S Coast Guard Cmdr. Pattie Kutch, who oversees part of the security operations in Hawaii. "People are a lot more aware of their surroundings today and more willing to report suspicious activity. Those who know the port best can alert us when something doesn't look right."

Victor Renaghan, director of trade operations for Customs here, said, "It's a different world for us, post-9/11. We're working with more agencies, doing more dock sweeps and doing more outreach to people who work the docks and know them and would know when something doesn't look right.''

Meanwhile, the state's main carriers, Matson Navigation Co. and CSX Lines, are stepping up security at their terminals. Coast Guard officials also praised security efforts at Tesoro Hawaii Corp. and Chevron Hawaii storage facilities.

Nonetheless, security experts have told Congress that U.S. seaports are still vulnerable. Just last month, a GAO report said: "Port vulnerabilities stem from inadequate security measures, as well as from the challenge of monitoring the vast and rapidly increasing volume of cargo, persons and vessels passing through the ports."

The report said "various assessments of national security have concluded that the nation's ports are far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than the nation's aviation system."

It is difficult to assess the security of Hawaii's ports because local authorities are understandably tight-lipped.

"We don't want to tell Osama where to look," said Harley Carter, the U.S. Customs Service acting director in Hawaii.

With 121 inspectors, the Customs Service in Hawaii is responsible for overseeing about 12,000 containers that arrive here annually from foreign ports.

The Coast Guard oversees the annual traffic of about 150,000 containers and 70,000 vehicles entering Hawaii.

Security experts note that al-Qaida not only wants to terrorize the American public with a violent event, but also to cripple the economy. Experts fear that a "dirty bomb" slipped into a 40-foot container could not only devastate a port if it blew up on arrival, but the port's closure would have a ripple effect on the global economy.

The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., estimates that a major port closure could cost $1 trillion to the national and global economy.

Earlier this month, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton reported the result of a war game scenario it performed in which terrorists planted radioactive bombs in containers bound for U.S. ports. The game revealed that the stock market would tank, the nation's ports would close for days and the backlog of cargo could take months to clear.

According to Booz Allen in Honolulu, no such economic-impact study has been conducted for Hawaii, where more than 95 percent of goods arrive by container ship. But experience from the recent West Coast dock slowdown and previous dock strikes here indicates that a port closure could decimate an already weak economy.

The nation's seaports are critical gateways for the movement of international and domestic commerce. Experts say that in 2001, about 5,400 ships carrying multinational crews and more than 6,000 containers entered the country.

According to a recent Brookings report, it would cost between $14 million and $24 million to improve security at each of the nation's top ports. In 2001, Congress appropriated $93 million for port security grants and was deluged with more than $700 million in requests. This year, about $200 million has been appropriated.

In June, Hawaii was awarded $650,000 to upgrade security at Honolulu Harbor. The state had asked for $4 million.

It would be impossible to inspect every container to determine that what is on the box's manifest matches its contents. The idea, say security experts, is to know what is in a container all along its voyage and before it ever enters its destination port.

"We want shippers to know who they are doing business with and who is touching their cargo at every point along the way," said Victor Renaghan, director of trade operations for Customs in Hawaii.

To gather critical information, partnerships are being formed among public, private and commercial interests. Customs has the Container Security Initiative to set up relations with foreign ports and even put U.S. Customs officials on site in strategic foreign ports such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Rotterdam. Relationships are also being formed with big shippers, who are charged with keeping tabs on their containers' contents.

Both Customs and the Coast Guard maintain databases that track shipment patterns, which helps them target suspicious shipments. Other than noting the country of origin, the Coast Guard and Customs each declined to identify what signs would make them suspicious.

"Terrorists want to ruin the economy, so we don't want to contribute to that goal by inhibiting cargo movement," said Mike Fleming, a spokesman for Customs in Los Angeles. "That would hurt us and our global partners. We want to keep legitimate cargo moving and target cargo that needs to be inspected."

In Hawaii, the most dramatic change has been with the cruise ship industry. Prior to Sept. 11, passengers and their luggage were not routinely screened. Earlier this month, a handgun was discovered in a tourist's luggage.

"Before 9/11, his luggage would never have been scanned or hand-searched," said Lt. Charlie Johnson, who heads shoreside safety and security operations for the Coast Guard in Hawaii. "But new procedures mean we found it."

Cargo inspection by the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and shippers has changed.

Prior to Sept. 11, the Customs Service physically inspected about 2 percent of all international containers. Today, that number is closer to 5 percent or 10 percent, depending on the port.

At the same time, noninvasive inspections have increased. Various X-ray and fiber-optics equipment can be used to scan individual shipping boxes or whole containers to detect false floors or walls. They can also detect radioactive material.

In Hawaii, Customs inspectors wear radiation-detection pagers on their belts. A November GAO report said Customs has deployed 4,200 pagers among its 7,500 inspectors and hopes to have all inspectors outfitted by September 2003.

The pagers, which have a limited range, are helpful but not foolproof and need to be used in conjunction with other equipment and intelligence-gathering.

Detecting nuclear material is difficult not only because of the volume of containers and the ability to send different components of a bomb to different ports, but because some of the most dangerous materials emit low radiation levels. Some equipment can be set off by a person who has just had radiation treatment, but not sound an alarm in the presence of highly enriched uranium, the chief component in a nuclear weapon.

In addition to high-tech equipment, both Customs and the Coast Guard are instituting new surveillance strategies. For example, the Coast Guard has established "security zones" around potential targets such as cruise ships, moored oil tankers and other "high-interest" vessels. Any vessel invading such a zone would be immediately intercepted by Coast Guard cutters armed with guns.

"Things have definitely changed since 9/11," said Vinnie Shimabukuro, the Customs Service chief inspector for Honolulu. "We have increased our at-sea boardings of vessels. We are actively enforcing security zones and have more cutters and helicopters on patrol."

She added, "We don't want to get hit like aviation did, so we are doing all we can to protect Hawaii and America."

E-mail to City Desk


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --