Port Insecurity

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

February 26, 2005

The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to protect the nation's ports against terrorist attacks. So far, it has excelled instead at securing pork.

An audit released last week by the department's inspector general uncovered hundreds of small grants awarded to projects deemed without merit by the grant program's own staff. An unnamed port that receives fewer than 20 ships a year won a grant to install security lights. Another received a grant to buy encrypted radios that were not compatible with federal and state radio systems already in place — the very problem that led to a disastrous breakdown in communication when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

The nation's largest and busiest ports — Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and New York — rightly received grants too. But so did St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., whose ports do not exactly make up the trade backbone of the American economy. And so did six locations in Arkansas, which last we checked was a landlocked state.

Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary for transportation security and (coincidentally?) a former Arkansas congressman, defended the pork, er, port grants with this convoluted logic: "If only the strategic ports would have been funded," he told a Times reporter, "then there would have been an inspector general's study saying, 'You left a gap, and the other ports have not had their security addressed sufficiently.' " We can just picture the uproar over St. Croix going undefended. Thankfully, Hutchinson will leave office next week, which is not soon enough.

More than 95% of imports from outside North America arrive on ships. Eighty percent of that goes through just 10 ports, with half of all imports passing through the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, the nation's largest. A dirty bomb tucked inside a cargo container would be devastating, and not just to the population and economy of the ill-fated port city that received it. Between 50% and 60% of the $200 billion in cargo that moves each year through the Los Angeles and Long Beach complex is delivered to destinations outside Southern California. That's furniture, clothing, toys and electronics — and jobs — for much of the nation.

The private sector will have to bear some of the financial burden of protecting ports from terrorist attacks. But the government must play a role as well. And with 90% of federal transportation security funds going to airports, it can't afford to squander the miserly amount it has earmarked for ports by buying biohazard suits for Fargo, N.D., while Los Angeles and New York go begging.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have introduced legislation that would require Homeland Security to allocate grants based on a port's vulnerability, the potential consequences of an attack and the actual threat as assessed by intelligence officials.

It's beyond belief that such common-sense rules require legislation. But it is now beyond doubt that they do.