Efforts to combat nuclear terrorism hindered by porous borders

The Port of Los Angeles -- Twelve thousand times a day, the hulking cranes outside Noel Cunningham's office unload another shipping container. Any one of them could conceal a nuclear weapon -- and Cunningham's first clue, he fears, might be a blinding flash outside his window.

As director of operations and emergency management for the Port of Los Angeles, Cunningham is responsible for securing a facility which, together with the neighboring Port of Long Beach, is the gateway for 44 percent of the goods that come into the United States. A bomb that gets through here is just a drive down the highway from any city in 48 states. "All the other threats, we can deal with," Cunningham says. "But the nuclear threat is probably the one we wouldn't recover from."

Cunningham's security challenge is hardly unique: America's porous borders and winding coastlines are impossible to fortify against bad people determined to get bad things into this country. The security consensus since 9/11 is that government officials should do everything they can to catch terrorists before they can launch an attack, but that they must realize they won't be able to catch all of them. The equation regarding the nuclear threat is different, however: Letting just one nuclear bomb through carries unacceptable costs -- mortal, economic, and psychological. So, this threat demands a response that -- ideally -- leaves nothing to chance.

With that in mind, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Cunningham and his Long Beach counterpart commissioned nuclear-security workups of their ports. The conclusion: Port officials could get the best protection against attacks by persuading officials abroad to tighten security at the foreign ports that feed shipments into Los Angeles and Long Beach. That's the mission that Cunningham and his colleagues began to pursue, at first meeting considerable push-back from the U.S. government. Now, their approach is a national model.

"The good news and the bad news is that Los Angeles is the best in the country," says University of California (Los Angeles) public policy professor Amy Zegart. She gives it a grade of C. A security expert who has studied the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex extensively, Zegart says that while Los Angeles has made more headway than any other jurisdiction, even after "superhuman effort" to coordinate jealously independent agencies, its security system remains full of holes, both technological and political.

The story is similar at the national level. Adm. James Loy, who until recently was the deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, recalled a series of "Deputies Committee" meetings in the White House Situation Room in early 2004 at which federal security officials expressed nagging worries about efforts to combat nuclear terrorism. This was the one threat that required a "zero-tolerance policy," Loy said, and current efforts weren't cutting it.

Within months, Loy would become one of the leading advocates in the federal government for a new office dedicated to bolstering the country's nuclear-detection policy and technology. In Loy's vision, this office would drive a "mini-Manhattan Project" to push for a technological breakthrough that could revolutionize America's ability to detect nuclear material at its borders, inside its borders, and around the world. The proposal for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office made its debut in the president's 2006 budget request.

But headway has been modest, at best. Many critics say the security system currently under development for ports and border crossings has inherent flaws. The chief weakness is that the system depends on newly installed "radiation portal monitors" -- which can't reliably detect the most-likely-to-be used material: highly enriched uranium. Nor can the monitors detect a shielded dirty bomb. And even if the devices could detect every type of nuclear material, as outgoing House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., points out, the current system assumes "that terrorists will do us a favor by bringing their nuclear material through a radiation portal monitor."

Indeed, it would be all too easy for terrorists to evade the portal monitors altogether by shipping a nuclear weapon -- whole or in parts -- on a yacht or in a truck, or even by carrying it in piece by piece in backpacks, or smuggling it across any number of unprotected sections of the northern and southern borders. Uranium, ironically, is so low in radioactivity that it is safe to handle without gloves, so a bomb's worth could even be broken into hundreds of half-pound chunks and smuggled into the country in people's pockets. One hundred kilograms (220 pounds) of enriched uranium, more than enough for a crude bomb like the one that shattered Hiroshima, would fit into a box 6 inches on a side -- about the size of a 1-gallon water jug. And while the Hiroshima bomb weighed 5 tons, a terrorist bomb designed to be detonated on the ground instead of dropped from an airplane could probably fit into a large SUV.

For decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States and the Soviet Union were safely deadlocked in a nuclear stalemate, because each country could count on its radar to detect the missiles coming and allow time for retaliation. In Noel Cunningham's world, there's no such heads-up. But with the right mix of intelligence, new technology, and sensible policy, there could be.

Some security experts say we shouldn't get too exercised over the nuclear threat, because the likelihood that we'll actually face it is low. But Cunningham says while that may be true for the country at large, it's not so for his port, according to the intelligence reports he sees every day. "We don't think the probability is low. We really don't," he says. "We have made that our top priority."

Detection Is Hard to Do

The best way to understand the challenges that Cunningham faces in protecting his port is to see it from on high. Flying over the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, Cunningham's deputy for homeland security, Lt. Michael Graychik, points out the cruise ship terminal, several shipping terminals, a waste treatment plant, a petroleum processing plant, the Queen Mary, and wrecking yards. "Some of [the yards] don't have fences; they're just there," he says. Graychik then motions to three freeways -- Interstate 405, U.S. Highway 110, and Interstate 710 -- that thread through the port, and a couple of bridges as well. "In some ports, you close the gate and the port's closed. You can't do that here," he says. "There's no gate to close. You can see how porous it is."

Collectively, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach span more than 7,000 acres. Even their own managers don't always know where the ports begin and end. "We use a map with different colors," to sort out what belongs to whom, Graychik explains.

Still, he believes that even if a nuclear weapon arrives at his port undetected, it's not likely to be detonated there. "I envision a nuclear attack occurring in a place like downtown L.A. before it occurs here -- tearing the heart out of the city," he says. The Los Angeles-Long Beach complex is perhaps the ideal conduit for a nuke, however. It marks the beginning of what's known as the Alameda Corridor, which is the main rail route out of the complex to the rest of the country -- and which ends on the eastern side of downtown Los Angeles.

That scenario is what keeps Los Angeles City Council member Jack Weiss up at night. "If a nuclear weapon were smuggled into Los Angeles via the Port of Los Angeles and transported via the Alameda Corridor into downtown L.A.," he says, "I would be shocked if anybody would have any prayer of finding out about that." Weiss represents one of the wealthiest districts in the city, and his constituents rarely, if ever, talk to him about terrorism. But as a former assistant U.S. attorney and Capitol Hill national security aide, he's mounted a personal quest to raise awareness, and money, for terrorism prevention and preparedness. "It's inevitable," he says of a nuclear attack somewhere in the country. "I don't even view it in terms of risk."

But Weiss says he's fighting an uphill battle, because local officials are not elected for their anti-terrorism credentials. "The next attack, if and when it comes, will not galvanize most leaders in most American cities to do more," he contends. "The attitude will continue to be, 'It can't and won't happen here.' " He notes that the Los Angeles Police Department just changed the name of its Counter-Terrorism Bureau to the Critical Incident Management Bureau. "The chief of police believed that if he kept using the word 'terrorism,' it would be hard to keep getting additional resources from the City Council," Weiss says with a mix of exasperation and resignation.

By Sea

Noel Cunningham's terrorism fixation began in 1993, after the first World Trade Center bombing. One of Cunningham's closest friends was Ferdinand (Freddie) Morrone, the chief of police for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who worked at the World Trade Center and was subsequently killed in the 2001 attacks. After the 1993 bombing, as the two learned more about a group of Islamic radicals known as al Qaeda, they began a quiet maritime-security crusade. Their listeners were few and their success limited. Terrorism didn't sell.

Built like a linebacker, Cunningham has a grandfatherly demeanor and an easy laugh. He spent 25 years with the Los Angeles Police Department before moving to the Port of Los Angeles, which has its own police department. After 9/11, he saw his window of opportunity open.

Conversations with officials at the CIA, FBI, and Coast Guard led him to quickly conclude that preventing a nuclear bomb from going off in, or going through, his port had to be his top priority. He persuaded his Long Beach counterparts to go in with him on a $40,000 contract with the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories to study the threat; it was the first time these two fiercely competitive ports made a joint investment. Charles Massey, a border and maritime security expert at Sandia, spent five months on the job. "From that study, we determined that our best bet was to try to dedicate all our resources toward the port of origin rather than here," Cunningham said. As Massey succinctly put it, "Once [a nuclear weapon] gets on a ship, you're done."

Since 70 percent of the cargo that enters Los Angeles and Long Beach comes from Hong Kong and Singapore, Cunningham and Massey decided to focus there. They had to persuade not only the foreign ports, but also the U.S. government, to take a more systemic approach. "We finally won, and it was painful," Massey recalls of their efforts to persuade the Transportation Security Administration to let them use grant money for a program that did more than test gadgets.

Selling stepped-up security measures to overseas ports was challenging, too, because adding security measures costs money. The fact that the U.S. government didn't appear to be backing the security efforts didn't help Cunningham and Massey with their sales job. Cunningham tapped his business contacts in Singapore and persuaded the mayor of Los Angeles to join him on a trip to try to seal the deal. It worked, and Hong Kong -- not to be shown up by its maritime archrival -- followed.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security was trying to forge a separate relationship with ports to implement two container-security programs, one that places Customs officers overseas to monitor containers as they are being loaded, and a second to give a kind of Good Housekeeping seal to companies whose supply chain is demonstrably secure. The Container Security Initiative has now put Customs officers in 36 foreign ports, and the certification program counts 5,052 corporate members -- although the Government Accountability Office has noted holes in both programs' vetting processes.

The Energy Department runs parallel port-security initiatives of its own. Energy's "Second Line of Defense" program has trained 1,400 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, as well as some foreign customs agents, at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, putting them through three-to-five-day crash courses complete with simulated seizures and practice samples of real uranium. And in 2003, an offshoot program called "Megaports" began installing radiation detectors to screen cargo containers at the largest foreign ports.

Back in the States, Homeland Security expects to have 90 radiation portal monitors operational at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex by the end of the year, making it possible to scan every container arriving from abroad. And the Los Angeles port is trying to piece together federal money to set up security cameras and other monitoring systems.

It's been slow going, says George Cummings, the Los Angeles port's homeland-security director. He sent the Homeland Security Department a sequenced, prioritized five-year plan (developed with his Long Beach counterpart), but DHS took a Chinese-menu approach, picking and choosing which parts to fund. The department will pay for worker security cards with snazzy biometrics, for example, but not for machines to read the cards.

The biggest on-the-ground bugaboo is what's known as secondary inspection. Right now, when a container that raises suspicion needs to be unloaded, it's driven eight miles to the Customs inspection facility in Carson, Calif. Cunningham has been lobbying for a new state-of-the-art inspection facility within the port, and planning for a $60 million facility is getting under way now, even though the proposal has caused much controversy in the surrounding community.

Los Angeles has also made some headway from an organizational standpoint, in resolving the "who's-in-charge" question. Coast Guard Capt. Peter Neffenger established the Area Maritime Security Committee, whose 14-member executive committee includes a representative of each major stakeholder in the port, from the FBI to the local fire chief. Depending on the scenario, Neffenger can quickly delegate responsibility to the FBI, or the fire chief, or the local police.

Neffenger, who holds a master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, also likes to war-game terrorist scenarios as a way to think through anti-terrorism strategies, and to tap some Hollywood creativity, he recently invited five screenwriters and producers to join in. Through his war-gaming, he's concluded that terrorists might choose to use a vehicle other than a container, because they would want to be able to stay close to their nuclear weapon. Moreover, forgery of the shipping documents would require a network of collaborators. The more people involved, the more likely someone will get caught.

Thousands of fishing boats, yachts, and other small craft go in and out of ports routinely, without inspection, noted Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate in the Project on Managing the Atom at the Kennedy School. "Lord knows what's on them."

So for all of their work, the best Cunningham and Neffenger can probably hope for is to force a determined terrorist to go somewhere else, say to Seattle or across a land border. "That's the whole idea," Cunningham says with a hearty laugh. He's only half-kidding.

By Land

Three thousand trucks roll through the Otay Mesa border crossing in Southern California each day. Border officials opened this entryway in 1985 to redirect cargo away from the country's busiest border crossing, which lies just 15 miles to the west. In October, the Otay Mesa crossing got its batch of radiation portal monitors, which look like enormous stereo speakers with bright-yellow borders. As trucks exit the tollbooth-like border checkpoints, they drive through the monitors at regular speed. The monitors beep when they detect radiation. This happens about 15 times a day.

The person in charge of this and all the other border crossings on California's southern border is Adele Fasano, a veteran of the U.S. Customs Service, now known as Customs and Border Protection, within the Homeland Security Department. Every truck goes through these monitors, and half of the trucks are randomly selected to go through a second monitor that zaps the truck's load with gamma rays to take an X-ray-like picture of the density of what's inside.

The main thing these monitors have brought Fasano is peace of mind. "Now I know when a truck comes through, it's being screened," she says. "We'll move on to other [threat] areas." Asked to name the greatest threat to her many border crossings, she quickly replies, "Narcotics." But security expert Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former Coast Guard commander, says that Fasano's confidence is unwarranted because the radiation monitors and the gamma-ray density-detection machines "don't talk to each other at all." So a truck full of lightly shielded highly enriched uranium can clear the radiation portal monitor and face just a 50 percent chance of being sent to the gamma-ray machine, which might detect the shielding but not the radiation.

Still, terrorists might consider a 50 percent chance of getting caught too risky if they can cross the border at some other spot that has no detection equipment at all. Harvard's Bunn frets about hikers carrying pieces of a nuclear weapon across the woodland border between Canada and the United States. The Homeland Security Department, in its classified National Planning Scenarios, conjures up a situation in which "different groups of illegal immigrants" smuggle in materials and parts for a bomb. Or they might drive a fully assembled bomb across the border in a rental truck or a large SUV.

It's actually pretty easy to cross the border undetected, says T.J. Bonner, president of the Border Patrol officers union. There are plenty of small, unmonitored roads, especially along the northern border. "Drive-throughs are still an easy way to move material that happens to be heavy," he says. And as for people and vehicles that the Border Patrol does encounter on these roads, he says, "we just don't screen people to see if they're carrying any nuclear materials with them, nor do we screen vehicles we happen to catch that drive between the ports of entry." Smugglers have gotten contraband across the border undetected through tunnels, in planes, even hidden inside a tank full of propane. The possibilities are "only limited by your imagination," Bonner says.

Inside the Borders

Once a hypothetical nuclear weapon is loose in the U.S., the challenge of finding it becomes tactically, and bureaucratically, much more complex. By law, Homeland Security has a leading role, but DHS has almost no assets for searching for a weapon of mass destruction. As the "lead federal agency" for counter-terrorism within the United States, the FBI has the authority and the agents to head the hunt, but to get highly technical expertise, the FBI relies on the agencies that actually handle America's own nuclear bombs: the military and the Department of Energy.

The government got its first wake-up call in 1974, when a blackmailer demanding $200,000 claimed to have a nuclear bomb in Boston. The confused scramble to send qualified specialists to check out the threat -- and the humiliation of being hoaxed -- led to the creation of a special Energy Department program known as NEST. Over three decades, even the name (if not the acronym) has changed, from "Nuclear Emergency Search Team," to the less dramatic "Nuclear Emergency Support Team." But the essence of NEST remains the same: DOE scientists, engineers, and support personnel who work full-time on designing, testing, and maintaining nuclear bombs, or on managing civilian nuclear materials, volunteer to be cross-trained and to be on call to leave their lab jobs at a moment's notice and deploy to a threatened city. Since 9/11, they have been called out again and again.

If you haven't noticed all of this NEST activity -- and the teams have been called to Washington, as well as to Manhattan and Los Angeles -- that's because you're not supposed to. NEST searchers wear civilian clothes and use detection gear concealed in backpacks and briefcases. And while the original NEST approach was to swarm the target city with hundreds of personnel, as early as the mid-1990s the program began reorganizing into an array of smaller, more streamlined, and less conspicuous teams.

The first response is often a squad of seven people from the nearest Energy lab, mobilized under the Radiological Assistance Program. Founded in the 1950s, RAP historically assisted industry and local government with minor problems, such as an cancer therapy source that had been improperly tossed into a Dumpster. But since such accidents could actually be early evidence of terrorists' building or smuggling a bomb, the RAP volunteers were trained and equipped, even before 9/11, to look for signs of weapons.

Still, most RAP members are not weapons experts, and some NEST veterans fear that they'll miss key clues. Energy officials argue, however, that the small search teams in the field are linked electronically with weapons laboratories like Los Alamos, where a larger "home team" of scientists specialized in nuclear weapons design can use their supercomputers and lab facilities to analyze the searchers' radiation readings. These elite weapons laboratories would also assess any radiation warnings from law enforcement and intelligence officials. To weed out hoaxes like the one in Boston, experts are trained to analyze each threat not only for technical plausibility but also for linguistic clues, such as whether the suspect is making references to the Koran, or to Tom Clancy thrillers.

In the event that an intelligence tip or a RAP investigation revealed a serious threat, Energy would dispatch a specialized counter-terrorist Search Response Team, either from Nellis Air Force Base (just down the road from Energy's Nevada Test Site) or from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. DOE has its own small fleet of aircraft, but they are frequently undergoing maintenance or carrying VIPs, according to a critical 2003 report by the department's own inspector general. NEST veterans talk of hitching rides on military planes or even commercial airlines to get to where they were needed.

The first-wave Search Response Team would consist (like a RAP team) of just seven Energy employees, linked to a home team at the labs. On arrival, the search team would expand by handing out detection equipment to a dozen or two local police officers. Just how user-friendly modern detection gear is, and how well the hastily trained novices are able to use it, is bitterly debated. (See sidebar, p. 1749.) In theory, cops can quickly learn to read a simple detector and call in the scientists to deal with anything suspicious -- and they know their city's streets as no scientist ever could. If time permits and the danger demands, more Energy technicians can flow in to reinforce the team. NEST even has planes and helicopters that can scan from the air, though such long-range methods are better suited for mapping nuclear fallout than for pinpointing an unexploded bomb.

If a bomb is found, Energy steps back into an advisory role. Seizing the weapon, and neutralizing any terrorists still around (to guard, transport, or put together the weapon), is up to the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team or to a military Joint Special Operations Command force code-named "Lincoln Gold." And it would probably be a Special Operations bomb squad that would disarm the device. (The FBI's explosives experts do not routinely handle nukes, as the military does.) Then, a larger Joint Technical Operations Team of military explosives-handlers, augmented by Energy weapons engineers, would move in to take the bomb apart.

These final steps have never been taken for real -- as far as we know. But the search process has been launched repeatedly since 9/11, especially during the fall of 2001, when ominous reports from a CIA source code-named "Dragonfire" convinced administration officials that al Qaeda had a bomb. "Our activity level certainly went up in the year and a half after 9/11, [and] from December '03 to late spring '04," says Joseph Krol, the retired Navy admiral who runs the emergency-response program at Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. "We were really up against it."

In the jittery new world, anomalous radiation readings could prompt panic. In several cases, said one NEST veteran, officials in D.C. went to high alert over false alarms that field teams could have easily resolved, "but they wouldn't listen to the field." And adding a Homeland Security Department only compounded the confusion of "multiple agencies trying to report straight to the president."

The law creating DHS gave it authority to call out the Energy experts in a crisis, but no authority over the day-to-day management of the teams themselves -- after all, their members work full-time at Energy labs. Former DHS officials say the newborn department, struggling to resolve its role, left the pre-9/11 system mostly intact. "The way we've worked it out," says Energy's Krol, "we are allowed to respond to anybody, and we let DHS know within 15 minutes via phone call. They certainly retain the right to say no, but the lead agency in most cases would be the FBI."

The biggest change of late has been to back off the hair-trigger responsiveness for NEST deployments. "A year and a half ago, it was automatic -- we'd just deploy. [But] we've had a better dialogue with the FBI and the intelligence community," says Krol, "and in some cases, the answer has come to be 'No, we don't have enough corroborated information to do a deployment.' " Without detailed intelligence to narrow down the search, the cold fact is that no number of experts can find a bomb in time. Today's technology can detect bombs from tens of yards away, not from miles away. "Our teams have a reasonably good chance if we were searching a large building or a city block," says one former Energy official. "If you told me a city, and didn't give me more clues than that, I wouldn't feel confident about our chances."

The Way Ahead?

No one wants to wait to start searching until after an A-bomb is inside an American city. No one can build a Great Wall of China that will stop every nuclear smuggler at the U.S. border, either. The most promising defense is not one rigid barrier, not one supersensor, but a network of intelligence -- both high-tech and human -- to spot suspicious anomalies while they are as far away from America as possible. Across the ocean in the port of Hong Kong, a pilot project is under way to scan every cargo container for nuclear material.

Stephen Flynn, whose previous advocacy effort evolved into the Container Security Initiative, persuaded Hong Kong to experimentally run every container through both radiation and gamma-ray density sensors, and then to take a picture of the container's identification numbers to match against databases for additional screening -- all while the container is moving along at about 9 miles an hour. All of these data build up a complete electronic picture of what a normal supply chain looks like, and may show how to flag aberrant containers without relying on inspectors to look at every image. The more information the system has about what is normal, the fewer false alarms it will produce.

Deploying such a system at every port in the world, Flynn estimates, would cost just $1.5 billion. But the Hong Kong project is in jeopardy because it lacks the blessing of the U.S. government, and without that, the port of Hong Kong can't justify spending $6.50 per container for the scan. Until recently, DHS has argued that only 3 to 4 percent of containers are sufficiently "high risk" to warrant scanning, not 100 percent, as in Flynn's model. However, the department announced recently that it eventually plans to run all international cargo and vehicles through radiation portal monitors, but not always in conjunction with density sensors that could detect shielded material.

Local innovation is brewing in Los Angeles as well. At the Terrorism Early Warning Group, which is run by the Los Angeles Country Sheriff's Department, Lt. John Sullivan has developed a model for relatively inexpensive sensors that could be networked around the city to spot nuclear material. Sullivan is the father of the Terrorism Early Warning Group, which is widely considered to be the most sophisticated local effort in the country to anticipate threats. Way back in 1998, he thought the city could usefully deploy a range of different, complementary sensors -- radiation, motion, photographic, weight -- that, if networked together properly, could detect and track a vehicle carrying nuclear material. (Additional sensors might also track biological and chemical agents.) Sullivan even mapped out where the sensors could go. The plan has sat for seven years in a white binder above his desk.

"You can't wire the whole country," Sullivan says. But -- like Flynn's pilot project in Hong Kong -- even a basic sensor system could give local officials a detailed baseline of what's normal, against which to gauge threats.

Any detection system, no matter how technologically advanced, is only as powerful as the information people use in deciding where and how to deploy it. "Weapon No. 1 is good intelligence," says Rep. Jane Harman of California, who is the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and whose district surrounds the port complex. "And we're not good at [nuclear] intelligence."

After all, the closest the United States came to catching 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta was when the police in Florida pulled him over for speeding -- and let him go. "The first discoverer of a threat may not be an intelligence agency; it may be a federal, state, or local law enforcement officer," says John Cohen, a former California detective and House Judiciary Committee staffer who now advises local governments. "Most police officers don't run across a bank robbery every day, but almost every police officer is trained to recognize one," Cohen said. Those hundreds of thousands of officers nationwide, he suggests, could be trained to watch for terrorists as well.

Harman goes further, saying, "One anti-terrorism strategy is a well-prepared public" -- if, she adds, officials can avoid the "crying-wolf syndrome" that has afflicted so many public alerts. If the government has real details on a specific threat, such as the description of the truck hauling the bomb or of the terrorist driving it, publishing that information could mobilize millions of citizens for the search. On the other hand, it could create a nationwide, nuclear-powered version of the D.C. area's 2002 hunt for sniper John Allen Muhammad's (nonexistent) white van. And once terrorists know that everyone is looking for them, they might simply decide to set their bomb off immediately in the nearest city rather than risk capture trying to reach their primary target; thus the search would save Washington, at the expense of, say, San Antonio.

Can a nuclear-bomb-hunting group small enough to keep a secret conduct a successful search? When, and what, do you tell the public? "Ten years ago, we were asking that question" in war games, says one former counter-terrorism official. "I don't think we have a good answer."