Ex-Coast Guard commander sees 'dangerously unprotected' ports

The United States is more vulnerable to terrorist threats now than before Sept. 11, 2001, a leading port security expert said Thursday at a National Academy of Sciences conference.

"America, a year later, is dangerously unprotected and dangerously unprepared for a catastrophic terrorist attack," said Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Flynn said the Sept. 11 attacks have highlighted the nation's vulnerabilities, giving terrorists ideas for asymmetric, "David and Goliath"-style attack plans that probably could be developed more quickly than government and private-sector officials can secure the nation's potential targets.

Addressing those security gaps is a daunting challenge, especially at the nation's points of entry, according to Flynn, whom Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill to create a Homeland Security Department, last year dubbed "the Paul Revere of 21st century port security."

"Right now, we are in a situation where even if we get hard intelligence [on an impending terrorist attack], it's non-actionable intelligence," Flynn said. He noted that 6 million shipping containers enter the United States by sea each year, while 11.5 million containers cross U.S. borders by truck and 2.2 million arrive by rail.

Flynn said under the current port security system, if officials learn that terrorists have loaded a weapon of mass destruction into a sea container en route to the United States, they probably would not have the mechanisms to identify the container or vessel carrying it before its arrival.

He said homeland security officials probably would have to search for the weapon by checking every shipping container at every port, grinding global trade to a halt for as long as six months. "The certainty of the threat would create ... mass [economic] disruption," Flynn said. "These [transportation] systems that we put in place for incredible efficiency and low cost and reliability had no security built within them."

Flynn said officials must take a global, intermodal, networked approach to "retrofitting" security into the nation's transportation systems. He warned against engaging in a "feeding frenzy" to patch only a few high-profile vulnerabilities while ignoring others.

"Single-point security can in fact make [transportation systems] more insecure," Flynn said. "What we do for research and development in this area has to be done across the whole supply chain. It's all about a systems approach."

That systems approach must extend beyond U.S. ports to the nation's trading partners, according to William Bonvillian, Lieberman's legislative director and chief counsel.

"Unless [the Customs Service] and the Coast Guard have a very good fix on what's coming out of a Czech light-bulb [manufacturing plant] at the outset, we will not have a secure system," Bonvillian said.