By RUSS BYNUM
SAVANNAH, Ga. - The marshlands around the nation's fourth-busiest container port used to be considered enough of a barrier that Port of Savannah officials didn't bother to build a full fence around the bustling main terminal. Now security is so tight that roughly 4,000 times a day, steel containers from arriving ships are loaded onto tractor-trailers that, before hitting the highway, must pass through giant radiation detectors designed to sniff out nuclear bombs.
In the 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has spent $2.5 billion on a sweeping security overhaul at U.S. seaports from Seattle to New Orleans to Eastport, Maine, paying for everything from perimeter fencing to motion sensors and training for security officers. Federal agencies with a direct role in safeguarding seaports, namely the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, have added whopping sums such as $420 million for a unified ID card system for 1.6 million truck drivers, longshoremen and other port workers nationwide.
The big challenge has been keeping a closer watch on imported cargo without imposing a costly slowdown on foreign trade. There's also a huge cost to the nation's 185 public seaports themselves, often passed along in tariffs and fees to the shippers. The Savannah port, for example, tacks on a $5.75 security fee for every cargo container it handles.
"It clearly is unfortunate and an extreme cost financially on international commerce," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, who can see the lines of trucks pulling their cargo through radiation scanners from his office window. "But there's no real alternative today."
U.S. ports worry Congress will make deep cuts in port security funding in the fiscal 2012 budget. An appropriations bill that recently passed the House included $1 billion in cuts to the Department of Homeland Security, largely by slashing its grant programs.
The American Association of Port Authorities says U.S. ports stand to lose half or more of the funding they're counting on to fulfill security improvement plans that look five years ahead.
"With the debt-ceiling crisis, we're just getting hammered," said Susan Monteverde, the group's vice president for government affairs.
At the Port of Long Beach, Calif., the nation's second-busiest, operations director Sean Strawbridge estimates that every dollar his port has received in federal security grants - $100 million since 2002 - has required an equivalent amount of the port's own money. While grants may pay for new technology, such as sonar to watch for underwater intruders, they don't pay for additional staff to operate such equipment, he said.
The security upgrades at Long Beach and its next-door neighbor, the top-performing U.S. port at Los Angeles, have a payoff that goes beyond guarding against nuclear bombs and saboteurs, Strawbridge said.
"We don't just look at this from a standpoint of protecting against terrorism," he said. "But also how do we keep the port resilient against catastrophic events, such as earthquakes."
Before 9/11, state port authorities typically established their own security rules and terrorists weren't really on their radar. U.S. ports were primarily on the lookout for cargo thieves, stowaways, drug smuggling and human trafficking. In those days, there wasn't even a fence around some parts of the 6-mile perimeter of Savannah's sprawling main terminal, said Kevin Doyle, security chief for the Georgia ports. Marsh and other natural barriers in those gaps were deemed adequate.
Not anymore. The fencing got replaced, or installed where there was none before, and motion sensors were added. Security cameras and patrol officers keep watch at the Savannah port's perimeter around the clock.
The Coast Guard now cross-checks crew lists for arriving ships in advance against terror watch lists. Customs and Border Protection officers screen similar cargo manifests submitted at least a day before arrival.
They essentially flag potentially suspicious cargo containers for closer inspection by doing what airport security officers aren't allowed to do with passengers - they use a form of profiling. Containers coming from an unfamiliar shipper, or with unusual or suspect goods inside, may get opened for physical inspection or scanned with an X-ray machine or similar imaging device.
While virtually every cargo container arriving at U.S. ports is scanned for radiation, Customs officers look inside only a fraction of those large steel boxes either by opening them or using imaging scans. The agency did not respond to a request by The Associated Press asking what percentage of cargo containers it pulls for closer inspection.
Lisa Brown, who oversees port operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Savannah, said methods used to virtually screen cargo using shipping manifests and technology have enabled the government to improve security without placing an undue burden on the shipping industry.
"As we evolve in our technologies, we also have to evolve in our mindset for thinking we have to cut open every container," Brown said.
Congress disagrees. A 2007 port security law included a requirement that all overseas ports shipping goods to the U.S. must find a way to X-ray 100 percent of cargo heading to America by the end of next year.
Port officials in the U.S. and overseas call the rule an unnecessary step that would increase costs, especially if U.S. trade partners then required ports here do the same thing. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last month she's deferring the change, as allowed by the law, until 2014 at the soonest.
Post-9/11 concerns about port security also prompted Congress to require the government to give closer scrutiny to foreign investment in companies managing U.S. port operations and other key infrastructure. That 2007 law followed congressional outrage when regulators approved a Dubai-owned company to manage some operations at six U.S. ports.
As a result of the controversy, the Dubai firm sold to a U.S. company its operations at the ports of New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans and Tampa, Fla.
Henry Willis, who studies port security for the RAND Corp. think tank, said he worries the U.S. is adding expensive layers of security at cargo ports at the expense of other areas more vulnerable to terrorism.
The U.S. has seen evidence of terrorists plotting maritime attacks, from the USS Cole bombing in 2000 to the recently discovered idea hatched by Osama bin Laden to capture oil tankers and blow them up at sea. However, Willis noted, nothing has pointed to terrorists trying to smuggle bombs into U.S. ports aboard ships. Why wouldn't they use more conventional methods, he said, such as entering the U.S. by land or using small boats, much like drug smugglers?
"There are other places we have huge gaps," Willis said. "For some of the security applications being considered, it's akin to putting additional locks on the front door when your back door is open."
American Association of Port Authorities, http://www.aapa-ports.org/