Saturday, May 20, 2006

Heads up to terrorists?

Today's New York Times story shows that we've learned nothing from the flap over the Dubai Ports World deal. The conventional wisdom following that incident was that at least it highlighted the gaps in port security and the Administration and Congress would now work overtime to close them.

And, yet, as the headline of today's story succinctly puts the essence of it, "to speed flow of goods, some ships are tipped by Coast Guard before inspections." The Coast Guard is supposed to conduct "surprise" inspections of incoming ships from time to time to, among other things, see to it that neither terrorists nor weapons of mass destruction and other implements of terror are sneaked into our country by sea. And, yet, bowing to complaints from industry about slowing down the flow of commerce, the Coast Guard sometimes gives ships advance notice that they will be inspected, potentially tipping off terrorists in time for them to slip away and to hide any weapons they may have stashed on board.

Part of the problem all along with the Administration's approach to homeland security is that it has paid disproportionate attention to industry concerns and complaints. Certainly security measures should be implemented in such a way as not to unduly inconvenience and financially penalize the private sector. But, when security and profit collide, security should trump, especially in the post-9/11 world when we know that terrorism is a real threat and not merely a theoretical one.

The article also points up another problem with the Department of Homeland Security from day one -underfunding. The Coast Guard is supposed to patrol 95,000 miles of coastline and to police 361 ports, and yet the total force (39,000) is not much larger than that of the New York City police department. So, to supplement its meager forces, the Coast Guard has to rely in part on, believe it or not, volunteers!

You'll recall that among the arguments the Adminstration and its supporters advanced in support of the notion of turning over port terminal operations to a country linked to terrorism was that, at the end of the day, port security would have remained in the hands of the Coast Guard. Today's Times article helps to show that those hands have a very weak grip, indeed.


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