Dr. Stephen Flynn, a Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, is a widely recognized expert on maritime security who has participated in numerous television and radio discussions on terrorism/counterterrorism and various related topics, and also has testified before Congress on the same subjects. His first book, America the Vulnerable, alerted Americans to the ease with which shipping containers could be exploited by terrorists seeking to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the country. Flynn’s recently published second book, Edge of Disaster, takes an even broader look at the nation’s vulnerability to terrorism. The authors spoke with Flynn to get his perspective into the current state of port security in the United States.

Dr. Flynn, you have done a tremendous amount of speaking and writing about various port and container security issues and the overall state of maritime security throughout the world. With the anniversaries of the International Maritime Organization’s International Ship and Port Facility Security Code and the U.S. Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) both approaching, how do you assess the progress made?

Dr. Flynn: There is little question that there has been progress, but the U.S. government should be resisting the temptation to self-congratulate itself on what it has achieved.  Port security has been neglected for decades and the intermodal transportation industry grew into the potent economic force it is today by treating security as an afterthought – at best. What Washington has been able to put together since 9/11 is essentially the Beta version of a port-security regime with lots of bugs still to be worked out.  More than five years after 9/11 we should be at version 2.0 or 3.0.

As a follow-up to the first question, the United States has two omnibus laws that address port and container security, MTSA and the newest one – the SAFE Ports Act. These are comprehensive laws, but are they enough – and, if they are not, what in your opinion should the next major maritime law address, who or what agency should enforce it, and who should pay for it?

Dr. Flynn: Both laws provide a skeletal framework for a port-security regime, without actually providing any muscle. This is because the Bush Administration and the U.S. Congress have consistently tripped themselves up on the federalism issue.  Ports in the United States have always been managed at the state and local levels even though our largest ports are truly critical national security assets.  The White House has been reluctant to set and fund real and measurable port-security standards – both for philosophical reasons – it believes in devolving power to the states – and for budgetary reasons – if it sets minimum security standards, the states will push back and insist that Washington bankroll the costs of satisfying those standards.

On the container-security issue, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Congress have been struggling unsuccessfully with the fact that the intermodal transportation system is a complex global network whose ownership and operation lies largely in the hands of foreign companies. The challenge is how to work this as a global issue and toentify meaningful incentives to get the relevant stakeholders to “The first thing that you recognize upon visiting major overseas ports like Hong Kong and Rotterdam is that the United States no longer has world- ports.” embrace them, even when they lie outside our legal jurisdiction.

You have spent a lot of time overseas, both in Europe and in the Far East. Are these other areas of the world taking a different approach to addressing maritime risk, and the introduction of a truly global maritime-security regime?

Dr. Flynn: The first thing that you recognize upon visiting major overseas ports like Hong Kong and Rotterdam is that the United States no longer has world- ports.  Many of our ports are little better than what you find in the developing world.  Everyone puts up with this because we are still the world’s wealthiest market, so the global transportation industry holds its nose, and copes.

One lesson that becomes obvious when you visit a world- port is that security and efficiency is not a “trade-off” or balancing-act issue. The more efficient a port is, the easier it is to secure. The key is a willingness to integrate technology and security measures into the normal operation of a port facility.

For instance, the largest container terminal in Rotterdam is fully automated.  The only people in the yard are in the gantry cranes loading or off-loading the vessel and those driving the trucks dropping off or receiving containers. There is virtually no opportunity for mischief inside the terminal because there is no reason for people to be near the stacks of boxes. The average truck spends only thirty minutes in the terminal.  If the driver spends too much time getting to where he is supposed to go, the exit gate won’t open until the terminal determines whether there was a legitimate … [reason] for the delay.  

At the macro level, I have yet to find a major overseas port authority, terminal operator, or ocean carrier who does not acknowledge the vulnerability of the system and the importance of treating security as an imperative. They all recognize that this must be addressed as a global issue.  Sadly, the biggest barrier to progress has been the lack of coherence and emphasis that the U.S. government has been assigning to port and container security.  It is hard to credibly insist on greater vigilance on the part of our trade partners when we still have not figured out how to issue transportation workerentification cards in our own ports.  

Earlier this year you wrote a widely circulated essay entitled “The Brittle Superpower” in the book Seeds of Disaster [Cambridge University Press, 2006]. In it you wrote that the 9/11 attacks “created a general sense among public and private-sector players that the security imperative requires far more attention than it is receiving. But the reality is that there still remain disincentives for the private sector to cooperate with government entities on this agenda.” What would you recommend be done to enhance greater private and public cooperation on security?

Dr. Flynn: Incentives involve both carrots and sticks. The easiest way to engender cooperation is with carrots such as tax incentives, better government services for those with high compliance rates, and outright grants.  But the stick of setting standards and enforcing them is vital for the market as well. This is because no company is willing to raise its cost of doing business by investing in security measures that will protect only its portion of the network, while its competitors leave the rest of the network exposed.

The transportation industry lives and dies by standards.  Equipment and processes must be harmonized for the global logistics system to work.  In the absence of common security standards that are advanced by governments with a mix of carrots and sticks, the private-sector companies will make only token efforts to lower their liability exposure.  At the end of the day, security is a public good. As such, it requires the government to be an active partner in advancing it.

During the 2006 U.S. Maritime Security Expo, held here in New York, you briefly discussed the February 2007 release of your new Random House book Edge of Disaster, which explains how and why America must be more resilient in the face of both natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Can you tell us a bit more about the book, and the message that you hope it conveys to your readers – ranging from national decision makers to average Americans?

Dr. Flynn: The central message of the book is that we should move away from a myopic focus of trying to secure ourselves from every conceivable terrorist threat. Instead, we should emphasize improving our resiliency in the face of a broad range of threats – acts of God as well as acts of men.  

At the end of the day, the biggest danger posed by terrorism is not what terrorists do to us, but what we do to ourselves when we are spooked.  The less resilient we are as a society, the more likely we are to overreact. The more resilient we are, the less attractive of a target we present for would-be terrorists.  Resiliency also provides the added benefit of making sure that we are able to bounce back from the inevitable natural disasters that are heading our way.

Thank you, Dr. Flynn.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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