A Secure Disposition

Chapter XI-2 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974 as amended, has for its objectives:
1. To establish an international framework involving co-operation between Contracting Governments, Government agencies, local administrations and the shipping and port industries to detect security threats and take preventive measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade;
2. To establish the respective role and responsibilities of the Contracting Governments, Government agencies, local administrations and the shipping and port industries, at the national and international level for ensuring maritime security;
3. To ensure the efficient and early collection and exchange of security-related information;
4. To provide a methodology for security assessments so as to have in place plans and procedures to react to changing security levels; and
5. To ensure confidence that adequate and proportionate maritime security measures are in place.

Since 9-11 dozens of scanning and inspection systems have been designed and sold, mainly to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In the wake of that World Trade Center surprise attack, financial security rather than “security of life at sea” was the objective behind this rush to design and market these detection systems.

Prior to that fateful event in 2001 there were but seven security firms in the U.S., you may recall. A more recent tally revealed that the number of such firms now exceeds 33,000, but these firms with their thousands of employees have managed to provide zero security for U.S. citizens.

[Years ago, the story goes, young job-seeking college graduates received whispered advice from older relatives that they should seek their fortunes in “plastics”. Now those youngsters are hearing the whispered word “security”. And why not? It’s the surest “get-rich” scheme there is.]

A report entitled, “The Use of SOLAS Ship Security Alert System”, by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, revealed that ship security alert systems have “grave shortcomings which, if not corrected, will leave a critical loophole open for terrorists to easily exploit.”

The report went on to state that the shortcomings in these systems place coastal populations at risk from terrorist threats. Thomas Timlen, who authored the report, wrote, “This is because the systems that are used by ships’ crew to alert government authorities of imminent terrorist threats will not alert anyone near the ship when danger is about to strike.

“Instead,” Mr. Timlen states, “the information is sent potentially thousands of miles away to the ship owner, who often must verify the alert before advising the so-called ‘flag-state’ of the ship. The flag state then must consider if and how to notify the coastal state where the ship is located.

“By the time that happens,” Timlen says, “the terrorist attack would probably already have been completed, with devastating consequences.”

“The main conclusion of this study was not anticipated when I began this project,” Timlen said, “however as the work progressed it became clear that if ship security alert systems are to have any remote chance of preventing acts of terrorism, something must be done to expedite the engagement of the responders, particularly if the compromised ship is near a populated and/or vulnerable area. The establishment of regional and/or international response coordinators may help to achieve this, however, enabling the ship security alert system to contact the responders directly would be even better.”

“Initial feedback from the ship owners and ship owners’ associations have been positive,” Timlen said. “Many agree that corrective steps must be taken. The vital question is whether anything will be done at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London. The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee meets this May, which will be the first opportunity for the organization to discuss the issue.”

Let’s review SOLAS’ Objective Number 5 again. It reads, “To ensure confidence that adequate and proportionate maritime security measures are in place.”

According to Mr. Timlen’s study, next to nothing has been achieved since sometime back in 1974, even though we have more than 33,000 firms supposedly working on the problem. Mr. Timlen uses terms like “security threats”, “preventive measures”, “ensuring maritime security”, “grave shortcomings”, “critical loopholes”, and “coastal populations at risk from terrorist threats”, and he infers that current ship security alert systems don’t have a “remote chance of preventing acts of terrorism”, but he expresses doubt that the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee will do anything about this “vital question” when it meets … in May! In London!

Maybe they feel a lot safer “over there”, and maybe we on this side of the pond shouldn’t be as fearful as we’ve been told to be, but in the “Congressional Research Service Report for Congress”, which we cited in our 2005 Vol. II, Art. 24 commentary, it was estimated that a terrorist nuclear bomb “detonated in a major seaport would kill 50,000 to 1 million people and would result in direct property damage of $ 50 billion to $ 500 billion, losses due to trade disruption of $ 100 billion to $ 200 billion, and direct costs of $ 300 billion to $ 1.2 trillion.”

If all that is true why couldn’t we just retrofit container ships with our patented storage and retrieval system? This system makes it possible to scan every container while a vessel is underway, and the entire operation could be completed in about a week’s time. Threats to our populace and economy would be detected far offshore and well outside the territorial limits of the U.S. Days prior to a vessel’s arrival at a U.S. port, every safe container on that vessel would be granted security clearance and any suspect container could be properly disposed of. Like, y’know … jettisoned … deepsixed.

Disposition would be the ultimate deterrent. It would be a justified precaution considering Mr. Timlen’s “devastating consequences”, and the cost to retrofit hundreds of container ships would be a lot less than the $ 300 billion to $ 1.2 trillion consequences quoted in the Congressional report.