By Brian Finlay – If the failure to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day yields nothing else, it should serve as a stark reminder of al Qaeda’s continuing commitment to strike at the American homeland. Although the finger-pointing, recriminations, and after action reviews will undoubtedly result in more rigorous security standards at our airports, unless our focus extends to the wider spectrum of terrorist risks facing US interests at home and abroad, any new strategy that emerges will better prepare us for the last attack while leaving us vulnerable to the next.
Testifying on Capitol Hill late last year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano revealed what national security analysts had long predicted-her Department will miss a Congressionally-imposed 2012 deadline to screen all seaborne cargo entering the United States for weapons of mass destruction. This unfortunate revelation leaves open a glaring window of opportunity for terrorists intent on inflicting catastrophic harm to the United States.
In 2008 roughly 9 million cargo containers entered the United States by sea. Prior to 9/11, less than 1% of that cargo was being screened by border control officers before being transferred from port and onto American highways. In the wake of 9/11, and the attendant fears over al Qaeda’s stated intent to acquire and use a nuclear weapon against US interests, Congress mandated that all cargo be screened before entering the country. Despite the seemingly common sense nature of that directive, early indications of the government’s capacity to meet that benchmark were not encouraging. Writing a year after the release of their final report and accompanying recommendations, the 9/11 Commissioners gave the US government a grade of “C” for its continued failure to institute a comprehensive screening system for cargo.
The global economy has increasingly come to depend upon the uninterrupted flow of trade. From Hong Kong to Dubai to New York, the vast majority of manufactured goods produced worldwide are transported in intermodal sea containers. A disruption in that flow-particularly one involving a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)-would cause not only major loss of life, but incalculable economic impacts that would be felt in every corner of the planet. A global economic depression would prove unavoidable, and the gains made in human development over the course of the past three decades would be quickly reversed.
In an effort to prevent such a catastrophe, since 9/11, radiation portal scanners have been installed at major seaports both in the United States and at other major ports around the world. But a nuclear weapon discovered at a US seaport is too late-particularly given that the lion’s share of American trade flows through a handful of “megaports” in very close proximity to major American cities: Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York/New Jersey, Houston, Miami. A nuclear detonation in any one of these ports would not only shut down global trade, it would cause an immediate loss of human life on a scale heretofore unimaginable.
Beyond this conundrum of proximity, the current US detection strategy also faces significant technical challenges. A major component of existing nuclear detection designs, Helium-3, is in short supply due to the massive build out of portal detection since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Moreover these portal detectors have only minutes to scan containers as they pass through the gates at our seaports, a major challenge indeed. Although the existing strategy implements an important first layer of detection, additional layers are needed for closing known security gaps. As security analysts continue to warn of a growing rather than diminishing threat from nuclear terrorism, the United States Government must think innovatively and exert maximum effort on prevention. And, considering the global economic downturn, it must do so in the most cost effective manner possible.
Extending Borders: Enhancing Security
Securing and monitoring the containers in-transit for the presence of nuclear materials is one obtainable first step towards complementing the existing layer of security already deployed at the major sea ports worldwide. By requiring a security device on containers that directly monitors for the presence of nuclear materials during the entire time the container is packed with goods until it arrives at its final destination, not only can alerts be generated far earlier than the arrival of a container at a sea port, but an alert can also be generated if a weapon or suspicious material is inserted into a container even after a container has begun its journey. Such security devices could also be used on individual containers at lower volume ports that have yet to deploy radiation portal monitors as the global “mega-ports” have done. Thus, an important security gap can be closed. By scanning containers in transit, America’s borders can be pushed well out into the high seas, enhancing the probability of early detection and saving American lives.
Where to Begin
The largest single shipper of goods in the United States is the US military. With military logistics transiting some of the most dangerous flashpoints on the globe, and advanced logistics technologies adopted quite readily by the Pentagon, an early proving ground for container security measures has been Army logistics. Congress should encourage the leadership of the Department of Defense to pilot a comprehensive global nuclear security shield for supply chain logistics. Ultimately, once proven, this model should be commercialized to the intermodal world-a model of innovation not dissimilar to the successful track record of the Global Positioning System and the Internet.
President Obama arrived in Washington vowing to make the prevention of nuclear terrorism a top national security priority. His predecessor spoke with similar urgency of the need to prevent the world’s most dangerous weapons from being obtained and used by the world’s most dangerous individuals. To date, however, the US Government has exhibited a bipartisan failure to think imaginatively and act pragmatically to prevent nuclear terrorism-opting instead for a stay-the-course approach to prevention and interdiction. In the race to prevent a nuclear 9/11, Washington should more effectively leverage the American ingenuity and technological capacities that are the envy of the world.
Photo Credit: Albert E. Theberge, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Brian Finlay directs the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center and is an unpaid advisor to Trojan Defense, LLC, a start-up firm exploring solid state neutron sensor technology.