This month, the Coast Guard picked up a drug dealer in Florida for selling phony crew papers to leaders of a Philippine terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda. That’s an example of the security problems that could beset U.S. ports, U.S. News & World Report says. Last fall, the government, the shipping industry, and importers engaged in a simulation game: What would happen if “dirty bombs,” designed to scatter radioactive material, showed up in shipping containers from abroad? The participants found that closing the ports and stepping up the inspection rate of containers threatened manufacturing inventories in a matter of days. Protection has started targeting for inspection high-risk containers (like those from an unknown shipper) in foreign ports, and domestic ports have tightened up employee identification systems.
But the government has devoted far less money to maritime security than it has to airline security, and many say the challenge is greater. The Coast Guard estimates that new safety measures will cost $1.4 billion over the next year, with $6 billion more required over the next 10 years. But so far, Congress has approved less than $400 million in grants to be doled out to the industry, and just $93 million of that has actually been disbursed. Many port officials think the feds aren’t doing enough. “This is a national defense issue, and we believe the cost should be funded by the federal budget,” says Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities.