On Different Courses

On Sunday, November 12th, The Mississippi Press featured an article, written by Natalie Chandler, with the title, “Chertoff, Taylor differ on port security”, and it made pretty good reading if you still had your head buried in the sand.

The $ 500 million Bertholf, the first large Coast Guard cutter to be built in 35 years, had just been christened at Northrop Grumman in Pascagoula, and someone at that event asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff if the U.S. should spend more money on securing the nation’s ports.

Secretary Chertoff responded, “A lot of what we do to invest in port security is right behind you,” as he pointed to the new vessel his wife had christened just moments before. “We’ve put hundreds of millions of dollars in(to) grants,” he added.

“Most significant is the money we directly put into the Coast Guard and the Navy. You got a lot of military and Coast Guard assets in the area that would be a barrier to somebody trying to float a boat up and blow up a ship, for example,” he pointed out.

Al Qaeda is “an enemy that wants to bring the war to U.S. shores,” he warned. Fighting terrorists in Iraq will keep Americans safe at home, Chertoff said.

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., joined in praising the vessel during the ceremony. He called the ship “a step in the right direction” to protect U.S. ports, but stated that the U.S. needs to do “a lot more” to prevent another terrorist attack.

Less than 1% of arriving containers are being inspected, Taylor said, and he expressed the fear that a biological or atomic or chemical weapon in an uninspected container could cause a major disaster.

That’s great speechifying, but it isn’t true … it’s fear-mongering. It’s spinnage, to put it politely, and for a number of reasons it isn’t fair.

But don’t take our word for it. Read what Charles Dragonette, the producer of the Navy’s “Worldwide Threat to Shipping Report”, said after reading an article entitled, “Maritime Terror: The Threat is Real”. This analyst made it clear that he was not at all comfortable with an FBI statement that, “There had been any number of attacks on ships that had been thwarted”.

He wrote: “I would like to ask for any examples, let alone ‘any number’ of them. Uncritical acceptance and repetition of security scare tactics serve no useful purpose. No one in industry will be served in their legitimate security concerns by such assertions. What is a ship owner, manager, operator, or crew to do with the information? It appears that the game is to make industry so scared that it will put up with anything in the way of interference or regulation, but in reality, that only harms security; it does not enhance it one bit. This is a game that industry does not have to consent to play.

“Crews and ships are demonized as security threats, when they represent the best set of eyes on the waterfront in terms of identifying what is abnormal. The best security device for the maritime industry is to take that industry with its depth of experience and common sense into real partnership. That means that activism at all levels of government needs to be tempered by voices of maritime experience. Customs and Coast Guard, two pillars of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), cling to their cherished regulatory roles. Let them stop prescribing, regulating, and demanding — and listen, carefully, to the voice of industry. All our security interests will be better served at far less cost.”

That’s what Mr. Dragonette said, and although he’s on the federal payroll, he’s no rank amateur.

Or how about these revelations from someone who no longer gets a government paycheck. Clark Kent Ervin was the leading internal auditor on the homeland security front at one time, but since being forced out of the department he has freely discussed the problems at the bureaucratic behemoth. His reports on the chaos, corruption and wastefulness at the department were so thorough and full-throated that he became a liability to the president. “I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” he said. In his reports he is quoted as saying:
• “The business of fear in the United States of America has been booming ever since September 11, 2001, and the price tag for the protective cordon of high-tech gadgetry intended to keep the U.S. safe from more terrorist attacks is enormous … The total 2005 Homeland Security budget weighs in at a whopping $ 50 billion — roughly equivalent to the gross national product of New Zealand …
• “The market is growing at an incredible rate,’ gushes the Security Industry Association at its ‘networking lunch’ with members of Congress and administration officials …
• “The American news magazine US News & World Report calls the booming business ‘Washington’s version of a Turkish bazaar’…
• “To this day, the harbor nuclear detectors are incapable of distinguishing between bombs and kitty litter or bananas, leading frustrated customs officials to simply shut them down. The new $ 1.2 billion explosives detectors for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a part of Homeland Security, are equally unreliable …”

According to a government study, Mr. Ervin reported, only four of the Department of Homeland Security’s 33 homeland protection programs are considered effective, leading the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to promise Congress that he’ll be taking a closer look at how the department spends its millions. But despite Chertoff’s promises, the booming industry’s prospects remain as rosy as ever. Indeed, the Secretary recently told a gathering of 400 industry executives that the government still depends on their help. “We need to make America a safer place,” he said — to roaring applause.

And, finally, let’s hear it from an outsider. Ian Williams, in Asia Times Online Ltd., advised our legislators that “more should be done on port security. And the solution is simple. Stop pouring hundreds of billions into occupying Iraq and fomenting terrorism, and spend a fraction of it on port security”.

[Now hear it from us. The remainder of those billions should be spent building container ships.]