By John Rhea
WASHINGTON — It's time for the federal government — and the private sector — to address what looms as perhaps the greatest tragedy in American history: the potential explosion of a nuclear warhead in a major U.S. seaport.
This possibility, originally raised by Albert Einstein more than 40 years ago, is a continuing threat. I cited this idea in the article I wrote on Sept. 12, 2001, but put it at the bottom of the page out of fear that somebody from al Qaida might be reading our magazine. The idea still disturbs me.
Even more disturbing are U.S. intelligence reports that Osama bin Laden's organization owns and operates at least 15 cargo freighters worldwide. Although the organization has shown no reluctance to conduct suicide missions, the crews could also detonate the contents of a containerized ship by remote signal or timer as it sat in a U.S. port or rail yard.
It turns out that I'm not the only one worrying about this. The Washington-based conservative think tank, the Cato Institute, last month weighed in with its own sobering assessment: "A nuclear detonation in a port such as Los Angeles, Houston, or Baltimore could result in massive casualties . . . a relatively modest (10-to-20-kiloton) weapon detonated in a major seaport would kill between 500,000 and 1 million people, directly destroy up to $500 billion worth of property, cause losses due to trade disruption of $100 billion to $200 billion, and impose further indirect costs of up to $1.2 trillion.
With 7,514 miles of border and 95,000 miles of shoreline, which we have traditionally taken great pride in not defending, we are extremely vulnerable. As I said on that agonizing Sept. 12, the terrorists get to choose the time and place of their next attack, and we have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
The brute-force approach of inspecting and identifying all incoming cargo isn't going to get the job done. To counter the terrorists we have to think like terrorists. We have to get inside their heads and ask ourselves what we would do if we were terrorists.
Moreover, there's the ever-present cost-benefits tradeoff. As horrible as a tragedy of this magnitude would be, even as the richest nation in the world we can't afford a gold-plated solution we think will protect us from all intrusions.
Least of all can we afford to clamp down on global trade. The United States is by far the world's largest trader, and the value of exports and imports grew from about 8 percent of the gross domestic product in 1960 to nearly 26 percent in 2000. Disrupting that trade would play into the hands of the terrorists.
If there were ever a compelling case for an open-systems architecture, this has to be it. Rather than try to build one system capable of screening out weapons of mass destruction at every point, a layered system would have safeguards that build upon one another at all stages of trade — from packing, to ports, to shipping, to border controls, to personnel checks.
No single component of this system would be infallible, but taken together, overlapping precautions would reduce the possibility of a major tragedy.
Such a system exists. The U.S. Department of Defense Total Asset Visibility (TAV) network uses radio frequency (RF) tags with full electronic container manifests attached to containers, wireless tag readers located at checkpoints around the world, and a computerized system to track and monitor the status of the containers.
TAV uses checkpoints at more than 400 locations in 36 countries — military and commercial seaports, airports, rail terminals, and military bases — to track the movement of some 250,000 conveyances.
Here is where the advanced technology industries can play a key role by adapting that system to the commercial environment — while keeping a keen eye on affordability issues.
The new U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has put another prototype system into operation. The U.S. Customs Service, which DHS absorbed in October 2001, established the National Targeting Center (NTC) to coordinate information from various agencies and sources. NTC uses that information to focus attention on the riskiest cargo containers, ships, and personnel.
Where technology can make its greatest contribution is in enabling the shipping industry to create what are being called "smart containers." These containers would carry with them a record of where they have been, what may have been added to them, and the personnel handling them.
DHS is currently running a pilot project in the nation's top three shipping centers — New York/New Jersey; Seattle/Tacoma, Wash.; and Los Angeles/Long Beach, Calif. — to evaluate container tracking and tracing, nonintrusive detection strategies, and improved container seals.
Here is a particularly attractive area for innovative technology. The most basic smart containers would probably incorporate passive RF identification tags using a technology similar to that used to track cars through toll lanes. Granted, these passive RF tags have advantages such as relatively low cost and proven operational capability, but they don't do the whole job. Security personnel would like to know more about a container when it arrives at a point to be scanned.
One proposed solution is active electronic seals that would detect when somebody breaks into a container. These seals would communicate that information to people who need to know it. These advanced devices also could be outfitted with global positioning system (GPS) capability to pinpoint the cargo, plus other sensors to detect the presence of chemical, biological, or nuclear elements.
The real challenge here is making this technology affordable. The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Advisory Committee on Commercial Operations — part of the U.S. Customers Service — estimates that active seals will cost as much as 10 times more than passive seals.
This, then, is where industry can play a key role: to apply the well-proven techniques of technology development to drive down costs and create new markets. I think we all would sleep better at night.