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Ports in a storm

We need to scramble to secure containers

We need to scramble to secure containers

January 05, 2008|By ROBERT GARY

The loss of Benazir Bhutto to the work of an assassin in Rawalpindi Pakistan may have implications in Maryland and perhaps even in Washington County. Her son is a possible political successor, but surely no substitute. Benazir was the voice of relatively civilized and restrained dissent against the antics of strongman dictator Pervez Musharraf, upon whose success at staying in office we all depend. If Pervez Musharraf gets pushed out for any reason, it is a very short step from there to a nuclear device falling into the hands of Al Qaida.

What would that mean for Baltimore? At some point the Department of Homeland Security would twig to the fact that they need a real program to assure the security of containers coming in to East Coast ports from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Probably within a matter of a few months they would realize that cadmium plates can conceal a nuclear device from neutron detectors of the sort they have been using to scan incoming containers.

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Within less than a year they would come to the conclusion that there is no container security unless the packing and loading of each container is directly supervised by a field-grade officer of the U.S. Coast Guard on temporary duty with the Department of Homeland Security and stationed at any one of 50 ports in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The field-grade officer (commander or above) would need to operate on a hands-on basis. Thus, to cover container loading at 50 ports round the clock, you need 500 senior officers. With junior personnel and support staff, figure a Container Security Detachment for Europe, Africa and Central Command of 2,000 service people. The Detachment CO would report to the Secretary of Defense via the Secretary of Homeland Security, and work closely, of course, with NSA.

The changing digital code identifying that American commissioned officer would go out several times per hour from the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md. When a safe container is fully loaded it would be sealed, and the officer would access its code at that moment via secure communications and input it onto the electronic seal that is placed on the container.

At that moment, the container would show up on the screen of a Container Traffic Controller at NSA. By the technology of the Global Positioning System, that container's position would be tracked from the point of sealing to the point of unsealing. The electronic seal would contain a power supply and a set of very complex circuits that would unambiguously indicate if that seal was in any way tampered with.

The container would be loaded on a ship bound for direct passage to an East Coast port. All the other containers on that ship would be parts of a cohort of containers, and if any one of them were moved a significant distance from the others, an alarm bell would go off in the NSA computer - somebody would pay real close attention.

The ship has to be loaded so the seals on all the containers it carries can be physically accessed. The seals themselves will report to the NSA computer if they are tampered with en route. When the ship gets 20 miles off our shores, a Coast Guard cutter can go out with a team of 12 trained inspectors and check every seal on the ship in about an hour or two. That way we don't need to close down the Port of Baltimore. With imports still flowing in from around the world, the retail stores in Hagerstown can stay in business.

It would be good if the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency were thinking about these necessary recourses right now, instead of trying to figure them out a year or two after al Qaida has an atomic explosive device.

Bhutto's almost predictable assassination is going to cause a lot of instability in Pakistan over the next 12 months. Our best hope is that somehow Musharraf can hold on until Hillary, or anyone who has the ability and willingness to think, sits down behind the big desk in the Oval Office.

They will quickly realize what needs to be done. They will call on corporate America to come up with the hardware and the software. They could put a system, as described, in place within 30 days, using the full power of the National Command Authority to make it so.

We might be able to get container security in place just in time. If Musharraf falls while Bush is still in office, our chances are significantly less good. Human survival has always depended on thinking skills. In the critical time, there is not much time. Think fast.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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